BYU, the Big 12 and the LGBT attack on the university's honor code: what's really at issue

In a story for The Christian Chronicle earlier this summer, I wrote about the intensifying clash between faith-based universities and gay-rights warriors:

Revoke Christian universities’ eligibility for federal student financial aid.
Strip their membership in the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
That’s what major gay-rights groups would like to do with higher education schools that espouse traditional biblical beliefs on sexuality and gender identity.

“Some voices are calling for Christian schools to be expelled from the NCAA, and others are calling for Pell Grants to be denied to students who attend our universities,” said Bruce McLarty, president of 6,000-student Harding University in Searcy, Ark. “These attacks seem to be coming from every direction these days.”

Against that backdrop, this week's news that LGBT forces are pushing to keep Mormon-owned Brigham Young University out of the Big 12 Conference is really no surprise.

This is how a column on the Sports cover of today's Dallas Morning News boils down the issue:

In the last 36 hours or so, Big 12 expansion has turned into a public debate on social issues.
Forget TV network preferences, or markets or academics or alumni bases or athletic programs or anything else that might be on the table when Big 12 presidents finally get around to a decision. The current front-burner issue involves BYU’s Honor Code and the LGBT community.
As it applies to BYU’s hopes of joining the Big 12, it’s now a significant factor, multiple industry and Big 12 school sources confirmed Tuesday. Suddenly, BYU’s strong football tradition, national following and 63,000-capacity stadium may not be enough to secure Big 12 membership.
“It is a serious issue,” said an industry source familiar with the Big 12 discussions. “Whether it keeps them out or not, it is a serious issue.”

Recent troubles at Baptist-affiliated Baylor University, of course, play into the BYU question. Here's some helpful context from our own tmatt — from his nationally syndicated religion column back in June:

It's already difficult for a university to defend centuries of Christian doctrines on sex in America's current legal and cultural climate. Meanwhile, as noted in media reports, nearly 200 colleges and universities are currently facing investigations under Title IX linked to sexual violence cases.
Baylor is one of a few major schools that face both tests.
After all, Baylor's "sexual conduct" guidelines proclaim that students, faculty and staff will be "guided by the biblical understanding that human sexuality is a gift from God and that physical sexual intimacy is to be expressed in the context of marital fidelity." In a support document, marriage is defined as the "uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime."

In today's Morning News, the sports columnist suggests:

After the very public issues at Baylor, Big 12 presidents may be unlikely to embrace another private school with strong church ties and potential Title IX issues.

The Dallas column is typical of most media treatments of this kind of case: There's a quote from a gay-rights advocate about BYU's "homophobic, biphobic and transphobic policies and practices." Also, there's a quote from BYU's athletic director that “LGBT players, coaches and fans are always welcome to the BYU campus. Everyone should be treated with respect, dignity and love.” But there's not a lot of depth to the discussion as far as delving into the underlying issues — and disagreements — at play.

For that kind of serious treatment, however, look no further than the front page of today's Salt Lake Tribune, where Godbeat veteran Peggy Fletcher Stack fairly and insightfully educates readers on the big picture:

Stack's lede:

All sides agree that discrimination is at the root of the battle over whether Brigham Young University should be excluded from the Big 12 athletic conference over the Provo school's gay policies.
They just differ over who is facing discrimination.
Supporters of BYU, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, view the school's potential barring from the league — because of its religiously based rules about sexual behavior — as discrimination.
At the same time, advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals argue that BYU's ban on gay behavior discriminates against them.
Religious freedom is "in the eye of the beholder," First Amendment expert Charles Haynes says from Washington, D.C. "There is little conversation in this country across this divide and little effort to find common ways to talk about this that accommodates both sides."
Except in Utah.
"The so-called Utah compromise, which is unique in the nation," says Haynes, founding director of Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum Institute, "shows that we can cross our differences and work some of this out — if we try."

Keep reading, and the Tribune explores whether this is a constitutional issue (no, according to the experts) or a freedom of association issue (yes, the experts say).

These are fascinating questions and ones that benefit — in the case of this particular story — from the experience and professionalism of a veteran journalist who has spent many years covering religious issues.

Oh, that more news organizations would dig below the surface and beyond the hot-button soundbites on both sides. Serious topics demand serious journalism.

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