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New letter clarifies update to BYU’s honor code following weeks of confusion

Letter reiterates that, ‘Lasting joy comes when we live the spirit as well as the letter of God’s laws’

BYU students Kate Foster, Tiauna Lomax and Caroline McKenzie hold signs as LBGT supporters rally on Brigham Young University’s campus in Provo on Wednesday, March 4, 2020.
BYU students Kate Foster, Tiauna Lomax and Caroline McKenzie hold signs as LBGT supporters rally on Brigham Young University’s campus in Provo on Wednesday, March 4, 2020.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

PROVO — After two weeks of widespread confusion about an update to its honor code, BYU tweeted a letter clarifying the update and what it means for student behavior.

“Same-sex romantic behavior cannot lead to eternal marriage and is therefore not compatible with the principles in the honor code,” said the letter, which was written by Elder Paul V. Johnson, commissioner of the Church Educational System of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“Lasting joy,” he added, “comes when we live the spirit as well as the letter of God’s laws.”

The update to the honor code for BYU and other church schools became public on Feb. 19, the same day the church published its updated and revised General Handbook, a guide of instructions and policies for leaders and members. The Church Educational System honor code applies to students and staff at BYU, BYU-Idaho, BYU-Hawaii, LDS Business College (soon to be renamed Ensign College) and BYU-Pathway Worldwide.

The honor code update removed a section on “homosexual behavior” that had prohibited all forms of same-sex physical intimacy, in or out of marriage.

LGBTQ BYU students and supporters held an impromptu campus rally Wednesday afternoon in Brigham Square between the Wilkinson Student Center and the library. More than 160 people marched in a large circle and another 75 or so stood on stairs holding signs. They chanted “No more fear,” “Rise and shout the gays are out” and “Gay rights.”

They said they were frustrated by what felt to them like a whiplashing policy.

Wednesday’s letter was sent to students and employees at all Church Educational System schools. The school also released a Q&A with Honor Code Director Kevin Utt.

Utt said the school recognizes some people “will continue to feel isolation and pain” and asked for understanding.

“We encourage all members of our campus community to reach out to those who are personally affected with sensitivity, love and respect,” he said in the Q&A.

Among those feeling isolated on Wednesday was Caroline McKenzie, a 23-year-old junior majoring in music. She carried a sign at the rally that said, “My family doesn’t want me. Now my school? BYU is home.”

“We want people to know that this isn’t just about a letter or a clause in the honor code,” she said. “These are real students with real experiences and real heartbreak.”

McKenzie said coming out to her family was a painful experience, and the relationship became toxic. She had nowhere to go for Christmas, but she had fashioned a network of people at BYU who were supporting her, including school counselors, she said.

“It feels now like the home I’ve created doesn’t want me,” she said. “I’m feeling like I have to choose between my sexuality and a school.”

The rally came one day after President M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, addressed students and taught from the Bible about the two great commandments — to love God by keeping his commandments, and to love your neighbor — in the context of the campus discussion.

“Marginalizing and persecuting people based on age, gender, nationality, religious preferences or anything else can be hurtful or misunderstood,” he said.

LGBT students at the rally said they were skeptical at first about the removal of the same-gender language from the honor code, but there was little clarification other than an invitation to visit with the Honor Code Office. It remained clear that while the church accepts same-sex marriage as the law of the land, it considers as sin any sexual relations outside of marriage between a man and a woman.

“I went and asked (the Honor Code Office) if as a gay member of the church, do I have permission to do what I see straight students do in their relationships,” said Caleb Ratelle, 26, a senior in manufacturing from Hayden, Idaho. “I left feeling like I had a green light.”

Social media reaction included other students who felt the letter provided clarity and said they were grateful for it.

Elder Johnson, a General Authority Seventy of the church for nearly 15 years, appeared to acknowledge the confusion. He wrote in his letter that the honor code update “led to much discussion and some misinterpretation. Out of respect for all concerned, we are providing the following clarifying statement.”

“The moral standards of the church did not change with the recent release of the General Handbook or the updated honor code,” he wrote. “There is and always has been more to living the Lord’s standard of a chaste and virtuous life than refraining from sexual relations outside of marriage. Lasting joy comes when we live the spirit as well as the letter of God’s laws.”

Absent such a clear statement, students, alumni and observers had debated the meaning of the honor code update. Others questioned whether that approach really did align with past church teachings, saying that the faith’s leaders long have taught caution about dating behaviors that could lead to immorality.

Elder Johnson referred to The Family: A Proclamation to the World in his letter.

“A foundational doctrine of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ,” he wrote, “is that ‘marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and that the family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of his children’ (‘The Family: A Proclamation to the World’). Church leaders have long taught these principles.”

Prior to Elder Johnson’s letter, The Deseret News had asked a BYU spokeswoman if the honor code update meant that gay students could kiss, hold hands and date. She provided a written statement.

“We are working with students and their questions on an individual basis,” she replied. “We have reiterated that even though we have removed the more prescriptive language, the principles of the honor code remain the same. In removing the more prescriptive language from the honor code, we believe this is helpful for our students. We want all of our students to feel welcome and included on our campus.”

Here is the full letter that BYU posted Tuesday from Elder Johnson:

“Recently the language of the principle-based Church Educational System Honor Code was updated. Those adjustments included significant doctrinal and behavioral matters that have led to much discussion and some misinterpretation. Out of respect for all concerned, we are providing the following clarifying statement.

“One change to the honor code language that has raised questions was the removal of a section on ‘homosexual behavior.’ The moral standards of the church did not change with the recent release of the General Handbook or the updated honor code. There is and always has been more to living the Lord’s standard of a chaste and virtuous life than refraining from sexual relations outside of marriage. Lasting joy comes when we live the spirit as well as the letter of God’s laws.

“A foundational doctrine of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ is that ‘marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and that the family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of his children’ (‘The Family: A Proclamation to the World’). Church leaders have long taught these principles.

“Same-sex romantic behavior cannot lead to eternal marriage and is therefore not compatible with the principles in the honor code.

“We are grateful for the commitment that all students and employees in the Church Educational System make to live the principles and spirit of the honor code.”