Considered a victory for gay students and activists when it was changed, many now see the application of that rule and the honor code process as still too punitive. The exercise of the new policy is one many say actually contradicts the decisions of the church leaders and even the school’s own policies.
Being a student in good standing at BYU has required, since the 1980s, an “ecclesiastical endorsement” from the student’s religious leader. For LDS students, this is a form approved by their bishop to verify the student is worthy to attend BYU.
Two days after Brian Clement (pictured at left) finished the law school admissions test in October of 2008, he was called into the Honor Code Office. Clement knew immediately that the administrators had learned of a brief relationship he had had with another male student the previous summer, one he now regrets. (The brief relationship, he admits, was consensual, but he also says that the other man was the one who pushed him into an intimate relationship.)
Apparently, word of the relationship reached BYU, which swiftly took action. Being one semester away from graduation, Clement was now following two different discipline tracks—one through BYU and one through his local ward.
Through his own ward, Clement faced probation, a loss of privileges or even excommunication. At BYU, he faced probation, suspension or even expulsion from the university. Clement was relieved to find that his own bishop chose leniency. “They didn’t pull my endorsement, so according to the church, I was worthy enough to stay at BYU.”
BYU disagreed and suspended him.
“It was really odd that I didn’t get kicked out through church,” Clement says. “Which is, technically, supposed to be the higher authority.”
Clement appealed the decision and thought he had a fighting chance, since his own bishop felt finishing his education would be better for him as a student and as a member of the church. That was until Clement discovered that the same person who handled his first hearing—Vern Heperi, dean of student life—would also be the sole decision maker in his appeal. Baker says that the Honor Code Office’s policy is that the person who hears the appeal is not anyone involved in the initial decision. While this was not Clement’s experience, Baker would not discuss specific incidents with students because of federal education privacy guidelines.
Clement made his appeal, backed up by a teacher and a character witness. Again, the suspension was upheld.
Clement, evicted from his student housing, lived life in limbo. While the issue of gay marriage consumed the nation during the Proposition 8 debate in California, Clement was meeting with the Honor Code Office every two months to complete essay assignments and learn whether or not he would be readmitted. For eight months he remained suspended. After finishing an assignment on how the honor code made him a better person, Clement was re-admitted in the fall of 2009.
Looking back at the process, Clement bristles at an investigation he felt was concluded before he could ever present his side. He says Heperi never seemed to believe his account that he was not the one pushing the relationship. He also was told he could not have any legal representation during his appeal or initial hearing. Baker, who responded for this story on behalf of Heperi and BYU, said in his statement that “attorneys are not invited to participate, unless one is a parent of the student involved.” “I didn’t know what I was allowed,” Clement says. “But it’s not like they read me my Miranda rights or anything.”
Not all gay students, however, have shared Clement and Kovalenko’s (pictured at left) experience. Brent Kerby, a current student, came out as gay to the Honor Code Office. While he was not in violation of the code, Kerby simply wanted to inform the office about his orientation and ask for clarification about the honor code expectations. “The counselor expressed sympathy for my situation and said, ‘Well, maybe the day will come when the church will say, ‘Get married: whether to a guy or a girl, it doesn’t matter.’ Sounds weird, but who knows?’” Kerby writes via e-mail.
“I was impressed by the kindness and sensitivity that was shown by this honor code counselor,” Kerby writes. “I asked many questions about the honor code and was given some helpful answers; while these answers didn’t entirely make clear what was expected of me as a gay BYU student, they did at least alleviate fears of being kicked out over some small perceived violation.”
For Clement, however, his experience with BYU was all he needed to walk away from the church entirely. Clement admits he was losing faith in the church before he was sanctioned but feels BYU sealed the deal; especially now that he has to explain the notice of suspension BYU gave him to every law school he applies to.
“[It] really pissed me off,” Clement says. “Considering my bishop just wanted me to finish school and get on with my life and not make me angry at the church. I really hate BYU. They really made me feel like crap.”
Certainly, an office regulating student life isn’t a court, but what is troubling for some students is inconsistency from the office. One student, who asked that his name not be used, was brought before the Honor Code Office but was never told he could bring character witnesses to the hearing. But in his situation, the office may have felt they had all the evidence they needed—a photo taken of him dancing at a gay nightclub in Salt Lake City.
He doesn’t deny the photo was of him but defending against the allegation of living an unchaste life or even “advocacy” through dancing, was difficult, since the identity of whoever took the photo was never disclosed.
“They never tell you who it was,” he says, although he suspects it was another gay student who felt jilted by him and got payback by turning him in.
BYU’s Baker notes that it’s exactly because the office isn’t a court that they can rely on anonymous tips. “Because the process is meant to be an educational experience and not an adversarial occurrence, students do not face their accusers in most cases.” Baker also denies that students are encouraged to follow or stake out other students to see if they violate the code, on or off campus.
“I try not to associate the church with BYU,” the student says. “It’s just frustrating because BYU and the honor code are actually stricter than the church.” He also feels that the code is not creating honorable students but a system that encourages ratting on one another and one that encourages students lying to avoid punishment.
“It fosters an environment that is just out of touch with reality. They don’t call it the ‘Provo bubble’ for nothing.”