At what point does the fight against discrimination become discrimination itself?
That's a question officials at Texas' Big 12 Conference will be forced to wrestle with as they consider whether to allow Brigham Young University into the fold.
On Aug. 8, Fox Sports first reported that Athlete Ally and the National Center for Lesbian Rights sent a letter to Big 12 administrators, urging them to pass over the Mormon university as the collegiate athletic conference looks to expand. The Big 12 originally consisted of 12 teams, but the now 10-member conference made the decision in late July to explore expansion to 12 or possibly 14 teams.
Enter Brigham Young. On paper, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints-owned university seems like a perfect candidate for expansion -- it's got a passionate fan base, a recognizable brand, a strong football tradition and a stadium that can seat more than 63,000 fans. That's no joke in a conference that regularly features nationally televised games and thrives on competitiveness.
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But LGBT advocacy groups say BYU's policies and traditions are incompatible with modern collegiate athletics and conferences like the Big 12. Admitting the university, they say, would run afoul of NCAA guidelines and would be harmful to other schools.
That's because BYU "actively and openly discriminates against its LGBT students and staff," the LGBT groups wrote to Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. "It provides no protections for LGBT students ... Given BYU's homophobic, biphobic and transphobic policies and practices, BYU should not be rewarded with Big 12 membership."
So what are BYU's policies regarding gay, lesbian and transgender students? The school's honor code has an entire section dealing with sexual behavior, and warns students that "homosexual behavior is inappropriate and violates the honor code."
The school says it welcomes students of any sexual orientation. Being gay is not a problem at BYU, the school says -- as long as students don't have sex.
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"BYU welcomes as full members of the university community all whose conduct meets university standards," BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins told The Salt Lake Tribune. "We are very clear and open about our honor code, which all students understand and commit to when they apply for admission. One's stated sexual orientation is not an issue."
Without context, the honor code doesn't fly. For those living in coastal liberal enclaves, like New York and Los Angeles, a policy like that is something outside the usual experience.
But it's worth pointing out that we're talking about a part of the country with significantly different values and ways of looking at the world. BYU forbids all sex outside of marriage, and that includes straight couples as well.
The school has infamously pulled student athletes from its squads for other honor code violations, it won't schedule games on Sundays, and student athletes are required to spend two years doing missionary work, just like every other student. And as The Salt Lake Tribune's Gordon Monson notes, male students aren't allowed to sport beards on campus.
BYU is a private university, and no one's forced to attend. Most students are Mormons, and they're fully aware of the school's honor code when they sign their admission papers.
This controversy isn't new. In 2015, Big 12 member Baylor University amended its student policy to remove references to "homosexual acts" as well as other specific language regarding sex. The updated policy says the Baptist school is "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." The language has changed, but the rules remain the same.
Could BYU buy itself into the good graces of LGBT advocacy groups if it amends its policy? That doesn't seem likely, according to Ashland Johnson of Athlete's Ally.
The Big 12's "member schools are very progressive," Johnson told Fox Sports. "If they allow BYU into their conference, all of the LGBT student-athletes, coaches and fans who travel to BYU will not have any protections" against discrimination.
It's not clear what kind of protections from discrimination Johnson has in mind. Will BYU send student vice police to patrol the locker rooms of opposing teams? Will morality-minded faculty knock down doors to make sure visiting athletes aren't engaging in anything they don't approve of behind closed doors? Will students confront or harass openly gay athletes from visiting schools?
None of that seems likely, and there's no indication visiting athletes will be treated any differently at BYU than they're treated at other campuses. BYU hasn't shown any inclination to police students from other schools, and the school doesn't have the power to do that anyway.
The real question is whether freedom of religion is still protected in this country. If we force religions to change, we're going down an incredibly slippery slope -- one that will lead to battles not only with Christian groups and churches, but also with Islamic organizations and clerics, conservative Judaism, and other beliefs.
This is different than the fight for gay marriage or for anti-discrimination laws protecting sexual minorities in the workplace. This is an attempt to change religious beliefs, or penalize an institution that won't change.
It's echoes of Hillary Clinton's 2015 address at the Women In The World Summit when she said that “deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed” in regard to abortion.
Fighting against discrimination is a noble and necessary thing. Attitudes have changed rapidly, and the gay rights movement has earned a string of victories that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago.
But when the quest for individual freedoms bumps up against the freedoms of others, it's time to take a step back and think through the consequences. The Big 12 will make a decision on whether to welcome BYU or pass it over, but that decision shouldn't be based on peoples' religious beliefs.