A Chill at BYU

Faculty members are being let go from Brigham Young University, and an opaque new office of the LDS church is apparently calling the shots. A common thread is LGBTQ issues.

December 1, 2022
The LDS temple in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Salt Lake Temple
(Wikipedia)

Two faculty members at Brigham Young University’s Idaho campus say they were suddenly told they can’t work there anymore. While the reason for the nonrenewals remains obscure, the professors both believe they were rejected for questioning the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ stance on homosexuality.

Last academic year, BYU’s Utah campus let go a longtime professor of writing under similarly mysterious circumstances. The professor said then that the only possible explanation was her own LGBTQ advocacy: wearing a rainbow pin on the first day of class and sometimes mentioning she had gay family members.

BYU, which is operated by the Mormon Church, does not permit same-sex relationships. The church itself does not perform same-sex marriages, and leaders sometimes refer to same-sex attraction as a “challenge.”

BYU Idaho did not respond to a request for comment about the nonrenewals. BYU in Utah referred questions to Idaho. Regarding the writing instructor nonrenewed last year, BYU in Utah has said that contract nonrenewals happen “for many different reasons.”

Some observers of the Mormon Church and BYU say the institutions have been taking a harder line on faith-based issues over the past few years, including by requiring that all new Mormon employees have a temple “recommend" attesting to their adherence to the church's teachings. Job candidates seeking this recommend must agree their local bishops can share potentially confidential information about them as part of the process. 

Jeffrey Holland, a prominent figure within the church, addressed LGBTQ activism specifically during a speech at the Utah campus in 2021, saying, “My beloved brothers and sisters, a house divided against itself cannot stand, and I will go to my grave pleading that this institution not only stands but stands unquestionably committed to its unique academic mission and to the church that sponsors it.” More recently, Clark G. Gilbert, the church's education commissioner, wrote that while BYU and other religiously affiliated institutions have long had certain faith-based requirements for professors, "to shape internal hiring and promotion across an entire university requires leadership that goes far beyond baseline ecclesiastical standards." BYU in Utah also banned student protests at a campus landmark after student activists lit it in rainbow colors.

Sam Penrod, a spokesperson for the church, said Wednesday that it might have a statement to share but none was provided by deadline.

Taylor Petrey, chair of religion studies at Kalamazoo College, who studies Mormonism, told Inside Higher Ed that the recent “firings are extremely concerning for Latter-day Saint educators and put the reputation of BYU in significant risk.” Not since the American Association of University Professors censured BYU in the late 1990s “has the institution faced such a significant threat to academic freedom and its standing as a legitimate institution of higher education,” he added. (The AAUP, which censures institutions for alleged violations of academic freedom and tenure, objected to BYU firing a Mormon professor of English who publicly referred to God as both a mother and a father, and BYU remains on the group’s censure list today.)

According to The Salt Lake Tribunewhich first reported on the effective terminations in Idaho, Lindsay Larson Call—herself a member of the LDS church—received a call from a BYU Idaho employee she didn’t know who told that her years working as an online instructor of family studies and as an instructor evaluation specialist had come to an end. The caller reportedly said he had nothing to do the with the decision and that he’d been given a list of names of employees who failed to obtain “ecclesiastical clearance” from the church’s Ecclesiastical Clearance Office.

Related Stories

Another online instructor, Ben Buswell, who taught business courses and who also is Mormon, told the Tribune that he’d gotten similar news.

The clearance office in question, commonly called the ECO, was created in 2020. Penrod, the church spokesperson, has said its role is to help ensure that “employees in the Church Educational System commit to maintain gospel standards as part of their employment, including an annual ecclesiastical endorsement from their local bishop.”

Both Buswell and Call said they were surprised that they’d been flagged, as they’d had temple recommends affirming their commitment to the faith. Both reached out to their local bishops. Call said her bishop said he’d endorsed her to the educational system, and that she believes some of her actions at work might have influenced the ECO's decision. For instance, she told the Tribune, she once pushed back against a curricular video that theorized mothers influence same-sex attraction, arguing that this didn’t align with the church’s stated neutrality on what causes same-sex attraction.

Buswell reportedly said his bishop was surprised he’d been let go and offered to show him the new questionnaire from the church he’d submitted regarding Buswell’s faith. Regarding a question on “marriage, family and gender," Buswell’s bishop reportedly said that Buswell had casually “expressed some concerns” around the church’s teaching on these issues but that “he is honest in his desire to understand the Lord and will come to the right decision on this.”

Two other online professors at BYU in Idaho (one of whom is Buswell’s wife) reportedly stopped teaching there voluntarily in light of what’s happened.

Call was not immediately available for an interview Wednesday but told Inside Higher Ed that she first received a call in late August canceling her fall contracts. Then, last month, she said, she received another call saying she could possibly seek reinstatement to teach in January. But she declined.

Petrey, the Mormon studies scholar, said that the ECO is a “new, shadowy organization” that has dismissed more employees than have publicly come forward thus far, and not just over LGBTQ issues.

“While the previous rules for ecclesiastical endorsement were ultimately decided at the local level, by bishops and church leaders who at least knew the faculty member, the new level of oversight is both more intrusive and less personal,” he said. “The new rules require that faculty members surrender confidentiality to all past church counseling before becoming a faculty member, meaning that an old infraction or doubt expressed to a church leader is explicitly sought out by the ECO. At the same time, the ECO does not interview the faculty member themselves, and can—and does—override the judgment of current church leaders who endorse the faculty member, the academic department and in some cases senior church leaders who endorsed the candidate in an interview.”

With its track record so far, Petrey said, “the secretive ECO has undermined the faculty’s trust and faith in their own church.”

Laurie Maffly-Kipp, Archer Alexander Distinguished Professor of religion at Washington University in St. Louis and a scholar of Mormonism, underscored the lack of clarity surrounding the faculty dismissals, saying it's “that very lack of transparency, I think, that leads to heightened anxiety, because others then feel nervous about how or when they themselves might end up on the wrong side of church authorities. If the guidelines aren’t clear, then any decisions can be seen as arbitrary or part of a larger pattern.”

Maffly-Kipp said what’s happening is not entirely new, as BYU “has dismissed faculty before and has guarded its power to do so as a matter of religious freedom.” But a combination of factors—including student and more general social unrest and Clark being a relatively new commissioner—“certainly make this a fraught moment.”

Share Article

Colleen Flaherty

Colleen Flaherty, Reporter, covers faculty issues for Inside Higher Ed. Prior to joining the publication in 2012, Colleen was military editor at the Killeen Daily Herald, outside Fort Hood, Texas. Before that, she covered government and land use issues for the Greenwich Time and Hersam Acorn Newspapers in her home state of Connecticut. After graduating from McGill University in Montreal in 2005 with a degree in English literature, Colleen taught English and English as a second language in public schools in the Bronx, N.Y. She earned her M.S.Ed. from City University of New York Lehman College in 2008 as part of the New York City Teaching Fellows program. 

Back to Top