Brigham Young University's potential membership in the Big 12 may be obstructed by its sexual conduct policies, as a coalition of 25 LGBT rights advocacy groups are urging the conference not to accept the university as a new member.
In a letter sent to Big 12 administrators, national and regional groups, including non-profit Athlete Ally and the National Center of Lesbian Rights, argue that the rules laid out in BYU's Honor Code prohibiting "homosexual behavior" among students and faculty are inconsistent with Big 12 membership values, bad for the Big 12 sports community, and in violation of Big 12 and NCAA guidelines.
BYU, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, "actively and openly discriminates against its LGBT students and staff. It provides no protections for LGBT students," the letter says. "Given BYU’s homophobic, biphobic and transphobic policies and practices, BYU should not be rewarded with Big 12 membership."
The campaign comes at a time when awareness of LGBT issues is growing in the world of college and professional sports. Last month, after a campaign by Athlete Ally and other groups, the NBA announced that it would not hold its 2017 All-Star Game in Charlotte, N.C. because of a controversial state bill requiring transgender people to use school and government bathrooms that conform to the gender on their birth certificates.
A few months prior, in April, the NCAA said it would add an LGBT anti-discrimination requirement for potential host cities for its championship events.
"The Big 12 would be moving backwards in a way from what we've seen other leagues and conferences recently do" by inviting BYU to join, Ashland Johnson, the director of policy and campaigns for Athlete's Ally, told Fox Sports.
Students at BYU, regardless of sexual orientation, are required to comply with an Honor Code that stipulates they will follow "a chaste and virtuous life" and prohibits "sexual misconduct."
In a section on "Homosexual Behavior," the code stresses that it "will respond to homosexual behavior rather than feelings or attraction and welcomes as full members of the university community all whose behavior meets university standards." But it bans "homosexual behavior," defined as "not only sexual relations between members of the same sex, but all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings."
As a private, religious institution, the school is exempt from Utah's anti-discrimination laws prohibiting housing and employment decisions based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
As leaders at other Christian colleges dealing with similar pressures have pointed out, students are aware of the policies in place prior to enrolling.
"As is the nature of communities, an essential component is the shared values and expectations of its members," David Toney, a legislative assistant for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, told The Atlantic earlier this year. "Students at Christian colleges freely choose to attend and willingly agree to the community covenants which are based on the theological underpinnings of the institution and its understanding of what is best for human flourishing."
At some schools, such as Baylor University, a Baptist school and current member of the Big 12, attempts to compromise have resulted in murky policies.
Last year, Baylor removed "homosexual acts" from a list of conduct violations that could result in disciplinary action, revising the policy to only prohibit "physical sexual intimacy" outside the context of "marital fidelity." However, the policy is interpreted through the lens of the Southern Baptist Convention's "Baptist Faith and Message of 1963," as FOX reported, a document which in 1998 was updated to define marriage as between one man and one woman.
As debates over religious freedom and anti-discrimination laws rage in the world beyond college sports, some religious conservatives argue that forcing people to go against their faith's values is a brand of intolerance in itself.
"Just as it was unsympathetic to gay and lesbian couples to say, 'Keep your relationship totally private,' it is also highly unsympathetic to the religious believer to say, 'You have a legal right to follow your belief in church but no right in any other realm of life, like charitable organizations or the workplace,'" Thomas Berg, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis, told The Christian Science Monitor's Warren Richey last month.
However, as Ms. Johnson of Athlete Ally points out, belonging to a certain athletic conference isn't a right.
"It's a privilege," she says. "And with that privilege comes responsibility to the fans, athletes and coaches."