Federal investigation into Mormon university’s anti-LGBT+ dating ban dropped

Groups of students walk across the campus of Brigham Young University BYU

The US Department of Education has dismissed an investigation into how LGBT+ students are treated at Brigham Young University (BYU).

The university is operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon church. BYU’s main campus is in Provo, Utah, and the school also has satellite branches in Idaho and Hawaii.

The department’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) said in a letter that it was dismissing a complaint against BYU as the school is exempt from parts of Title IX because of its religious affiliation. Title IX is a federal law that protects against discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation and gender identity in schools.

The letter, which was addressed to BYU’s president Kevin J Worthen, listed 15 regulatory provisions from which the university is exempt. It stated that these provisions would “conflict with the religious tenets of the University’s controlling religious organisation that pertain to sexual orientation and gender identity”.

The letter read: “Because the University is exempt from the above-referenced regulatory provisions of Title IX, OCR lacks jurisdiction to address the complaint’s allegations.

“Accordingly, OCR is dismissing this complaint.”

BYU issued a statement on Thursday (10 February) saying it had “anticipated” that the complaint would be dismissed as “OCR has repeatedly recognised BYU’s religious exemption for Title IX requirements that are not consistent with the religious tenets of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”.

The statement also quoted a letter by Worthen to the OCR in November which said that BYU affirms the “freedom to operate a religious university without sacrificing distinctive religious beliefs”.

The complaint, which prompted the investigation, stemmed from BYU’s ban on same-sex romantic relationships.

In early 2020, BYU removed a section from its Honor Code, which students can be expelled for breaking, that described “homosexual behaviour” as “inappropriate” and violated the code.

LGBT+ students at the Mormon university celebrated by publicly coming out as part of the queer community and kissing friends and partners of the same gender in various places around campus.

However, just a few weeks later, BYU backtracked on removing the ban and announced that “same-sex romantic behaviour” is still prohibited.

According to the letter from the OCR, the office notified BYU in October 2021 that it was opening an investigation into the complaint.

LGBT+ students are disappointed that the federal investigation was dropped.

Madi Hawes, a sophomore and one of the leaders of BYU’s unofficial LGBT+ group, told NBC News that she was “almost compelled to say that I was heartbroken” when she heard about the decision. But she admitted that she “didn’t expect anything to happen”.

“While I was hopeful, there wasn’t much faith backing up that hope. It was blind hope that I could even recognize as blind hope,” Hawes said.

She felt like the OCR “wasn’t valuing our safety and our rights as much” given that the dismissal notice came less than four months after the investigation was opened.

Hawes added the quick turnaround felt almost “more painful than if the investigation had gone on a long time and nothing happened”.

Cal Burke, a recent BYU student who is gay, told the Salt Lake Tribune that the Department of Education’s “decision is nearly as heartbreaking as BYU’s coordinated campaign against its queer students”.

“We queer students will never give up because we are right and God is on our side,” he said. “We will not give up until all queer Latter-day Saints are free and safe and loved.”