In November 2015, just months after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, Mormons took a hard stand for traditional families. Barely more than four years later, the flagship university of the Latter-day Saints relaxed its honor code barring all homosexual conduct.
The change to the rules at Brigham Young University followed similar policy revisions in recent years by a number of prominent religious schools. Some Christian colleges and universities, however, are keeping their prohibition on same-sex conduct in place.
BYU said it updated its honor code to be in alignment with the doctrine and policies of the Mormon religion, which owns the university. Its doctrine on sexuality has undergone a series of shifts in the past five years. After Obergefell, Mormon officials branded individuals in same-sex unions, already considered a serious transgression, as apostates and barred their children from baptism—a rite Mormons believe is necessary for eternal salvation.
At the time, LDS President Thomas Monson said a revelation he received from “the mind of the lord” motivated the doctrinal change. In 2019, under new President Russell M. Nelson, Mormons again amended their handbook, no longer characterizing same-sex couples as apostates. Officials also reinstated baptism for children of same-sex couples.
Previously, the BYU honor code did not outlaw same-sex attraction but did prohibit students from acting on it in any way, including “all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings.” The changes deleted the section on homosexuality entirely.
“We believe that removing the more prescriptive language from the honor code is helpful for our LGBTQ students,” BYU media relations manager Tom Hollingshead said. He did not reply to a follow-up question asking how not confronting students who violate what Mormons consider “one of [their] most important laws” helps them.
Several evangelical Christian institutions have also sought a middle ground between Biblical doctrine and the demands of LGBTQ students. In 2018, Azusa Pacific University in Southern California eliminated a section from its student conduct policy that specifically banned on-campus homosexual relationships. One rationale: Removing the threat of punishment could free students to share their struggles and be open to discipleship, as the school’s student handbook suggests.
In 2015, Baylor University in Waco, Texas, removed “homosexual acts” from its list of prohibited conduct while maintaining it endorsed the Southern Baptist Convention’s affirmation of Biblical marriage. The moves did not satisfy the pro-gay website Campus Pride, which still placed Baylor and APU on its “shame list.”
By 2014, the year before Obergefell, Notre Dame University, Boston College, and Creighton University, as well as almost two dozen Jesuit colleges, had begun offering employee benefits to same-sex partners. The Catholic schools justified the move by saying they wanted to comply with civil laws. The move, especially its timing before the Obergefell ruling, disappointed many Catholics. Notre Dame’s Standards of Conduct policy for students still states the university “embraces the Catholic Church’s teaching” and forbids sexual unions not comprised of “two persons in marriage.” Campus Pride does not include Notre Dame, Boston College, or Creighton on its “shame list.”
The potential loss of federal money weighs into schools’ policy decisions. While President Donald Trump has taken steps to guard freedom of speech and religion on college campuses, past administrations in Washington used anti-discrimination laws to threaten to strip government funds and even tax-exempt status from institutions upholding Biblical definitions of sex and gender. Future administrations could do the same.
In spite of the shifting landscape, a number of evangelical schools are standing firm on expectations of Biblical conduct for their students. Geneva College, Houston Baptist University, and Biola University affirm marriage as only between one man and one woman and prohibit homosexual behavior on campus. Biola Vice President of Student Development Andre Stephens said it’s important to “respect each other’s dignity as God’s image-bearers while continuing to remain faithful to our Biblical understanding of marriage and human sexuality.”