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LGBT BYU students and their supporters rally at church office building in Salt Lake City

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LGBT supporters gather outside The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Church Office Building in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 6, 2020, during a protest of the honor code at the faith’s universities.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Singing hymns and Primary songs and chanting “Let all students date,” a crowd of 250 grew to more than 500 in an afternoon rally outside the Church Office Building of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Friday afternoon to protest the honor code at the faith’s universities.

“We want to provide a space for anyone experiencing a range of emotions, from anger to sadness,” said organizer Jorden Jackson, 25, a BYU graduate student in sociology from Vancouver, Washington. “A lot of people are hurt, and not just BYU students. A lot of people are mourning.”

Salt Lake City granted the group a spontaneous protest permit for the sidewalks all around the office tower and the Temple Square block and for City Creek Park. The rally began at 3 p.m. and lasted until 6 p.m.

It was a response to a change in the honor code two weeks ago that Jackson and other BYU students said appeared to clear the way for same-sex dating but was followed this week by a clarification that it does not.

The clarification came Wednesday in a letter to students from the commissioner of church education, who wrote that same-sex romantic behavior is not compatible with the honor code.

On Friday evening, the church responded to the rally with a written statement:

“The teachings of the church and the policies of our universities are consistent with eternal principles, and seek to encourage and strengthen relationships that lead to eternal covenants made with God,” church spokesman Doug Andersen said. “The church and its leaders continue to teach that though there may be disagreement on an issue or policy, we should treat one another with love, respect and kindness.”

The rally was loud but peaceful. People sang Latter-day Saint hymns like “Love One Another” and the Primary song “I Am a Child of God.” They chanted “God loves queers,” “Love is a human right” and “Trans lives matter.”

Students and supporters held signs — “Enter to be gaslighted, go forth traumatized” — and moved into City Creek Park for speeches. That’s where one BYU student said that the enemy is not BYU, the Church Educational System or the church itself.

“The enemy is neglect, ignorance, pride and hate,” said Bradley Talbot, 22, a psychology major from Pleasant Grove. “I love BYU and am not leaving. I love the church and I am not leaving. I am a child of God and a disciple of Christ. It is not black and white. I cannot and will not choose one family or the other. It’s rainbow, and I choose both.

Other speakers at the rally included Stacey Harkey, a BYU alum and “Studio C” and JK! Studios comedian who came out as gay in late 2018.

“I need you to understand something. You have value,” he told the crowd. “Yes we are rare. But that just makes us precious. Our perspectives have value,” he said.

BYU enrolls gay students and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints welcomes gay members in its congregations. Church doctrine includes striving for cleanliness in thoughts and actions and adherence to the law of chastity which says sexual relations outside marriage between a man and a woman is a sin.

Students sign the honor code, committing personally to living honestly, being respectful of others, and living “a chaste and virtuous life, including abstaining from any sexual relations outside a marriage between a man and a woman.”

The flap over the honor code began a few weeks ago.

On Feb. 12, officials posted the update to the honor code on BYU’s website. The update deleted a section titled “homosexual behavior,” which said in part, “Homosexual behavior is inappropriate and violates the honor code. Homosexual behavior includes not only sexual relations between members of the same sex, but all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings.”

That definition included hand-holding, kissing and dating.

On Feb. 19, the deletion made national news after media outlets reported it for the first time.

Some lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students hoped that the section’s removal meant they had permission to date and express their affections. Others said they were skeptical that anything had changed.

The celebrations prompted a response from BYU.

“In speaking with Honor Code Office Director Kevin Utt this afternoon, we’ve learned that there may have been some miscommunication as to what the honor code changes mean,” the administration said on its @BYU Twitter account. “Even though we have removed the more prescriptive language, the principles of the Honor Code remain the same.

“The Honor Code Office will handle questions that arise on a case-by-case basis. For example, since dating means different things to different people, the Honor Code Office will work with students individually.”

BYU said the deletion was meant to align the honor code with the church’s new General Handbook, which was released the same day, Feb. 19, and requires abstinence outside a marriage between a man and a woman.

Some same-sex attracted students told media outlets, including the Deseret News, that the Honor Code Office told them individually they could date. The clarification came Wednesday.

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

LGBT students on the BYU campus in Provo immediately organized, rallying on campus on both Wednesday and Thursday. On Friday, they took their case to the Church Office Building, signing, chanting and sitting in for 45 minutes before marching around the massive Salt Lake City block that includes Temple Square.