This is my second post addressing the recent changes to the Handbook relating to LGBTQ issues. The first post addressed the new policy relating to transgender individuals, while this post addresses changes in policy relating to same-sex relations and marriage.
This version of the handbook officially removes the text of the “exclusion policy” instituted in November 2015 and orally rescinded in statements made by President Oaks just before April conference last year. In that press release, President Oaks stated, “immoral conduct in heterosexual and homosexual relationship will be treated in the same way.” And indeed, the new handbook policy reflects that statement, as heterosexual and same-sex sexual immorality are addressed in the same sections and face the same possible membership restrictions.
Policy based on Principle – The Law of Chastity
The governing principle in the church’s framing of sexual immorality in the new handbook is its definition of the Law of Chastity, which it defines as “abstinence from sexual relations outside of a marriage between a man and a woman according to God’s law.” (18.104.22.168)
In setting forth reasons for Church Membership Councils in Chapter 32 (formerly called Church Disciplinary Councils), the handbook distinguishes between sins where a “Membership Council is Required” and where a “Membership Council May be Necessary.” In the column of “May be Necessary,” the handbook includes a category of sin called “sexual immorality,” which includes same-sex relations together with adultery and fornication, cohabitation, civil unions and same-sex marriage.
The welcome takeaway from this is that same-sex relations are no longer in a separate category by themselves, which used to give the impression that they were somehow worse than heterosexual sin, and they no longer require a membership council or are considered apostasy. However, there is still a long way to go to allow gay people to be treated equal to straight people in our church. The next step toward equality will require removing same-sex marriage as a sin of sexual immorality altogether.
The revised “Policies on Moral Issues” section (38.6) contains specific sections on “Same-sex Attraction and Same-sex Behavior” (38.6.12) and “Same-sex Marriage” (38.6.13). The same-sex marriage section contains these two paragraphs, worth noting:
As a doctrinal principle, based on the scriptures, the Church affirms that marriage between a man and a woman is essential to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children. The Church also affirms that God’s law defines marriage as the legal and lawful union between a man and a woman.
Only a man and a woman who are legally and lawfully wedded as husband and wife should have sexual relations. Any other sexual relations, including those between persons of the same sex, are sinful and undermine the divinely created institution of the family.
The first sentence indicates that the church declares its position to be “a doctrinal principle, based on the scriptures.” However, to my knowledge, based on extensive study and research, the church has never really explicated its theology or doctrine on its current position. Moreover, while it says above that this position is based on the scriptures, that handbook reference does not cite any scripture, which is inconsistent with the rest of the handbook.
In the second paragraph of the above reference, the church doubles down on the rhetoric that same-sex relations (which now include legal, monogamous same-sex marriage) “undermine the divinely created institution of the family.” While this argument was made in numerous legal briefs filed by the church and other politically conservative groups in their fight against the legalization of same-sex marriage, none of these groups was able to provide good support for that argument, and no court (based on my knowledge) found the argument persuasive.
The church appears to repeatedly make this argument based on a simple appeal to authority – i.e., God says it, past prophets have said it, the scriptures say it – without providing any theological or doctrinal basis for it. Without deep theological engagement, or the willingness to break from theological tradition like the church’s founding prophet Joseph Smith, it can be reasonably asked how the church can be the living church it claims to be. As a result, it has lost and will continue to lose a significant segment of its membership (along with their families and supporters) who have no place in its current doctrine and theology on LGBTQ people.
The best the church can offer our LGBTQ members is this weak consolation prize, which “outsources” justice and equal treatment to the next life (38.6.12):
The circumstances of some faithful members do not allow them to receive the blessings of eternal marriage and parenthood in this life. They will receive all promised blessings in the eternities, provided they keep the covenants they have made with God
Policy on the Ground – Where the Rubber Hits the Road
Immediately following the release of the new handbook, the BYU Honor Code Office (“HCO”) released an update to the Honor Code, removing the section on “homosexual behavior,” which had prohibited all forms of physical intimacy. This update applies to all church-owned schools.
The reaction on the ground was immediate jubilation and rejoicing among students, with major news outlets reporting on the change that now appeared to allow same-sex dating, handholding, kissing and other forms of physical affection as long as it did not break the church’s law of chastity. BYU quickly responded with a series of ambiguous tweets that appeared to be backpedaling on student interpretation. However, in personal communications with the HCO (including by me), the HCO confirmed that it would not investigate or interview students who were reported on for showing same-sex physical affection or dating, unless it was believed that sexual misconduct was occurring (which is the same criteria used for straight students). In fact, if a student’s reporting on LGBTQ students is deemed harassing or without merit, the HCO may find it in violation of the Honor Code’s policy on respecting others and reprimand that student.
What I foresaw in the blog post I wrote after President Oaks’ statements last April appears to be happening. Even if church leaders become uncomfortable with what is happening and make a major retraction to redefine policy on same-sex behavior, it seems unlikely that this Pandora’s box can be closed again without significant negative PR and membership repercussions. As I wrote in that last blog post, the application of this new policy will be “a huge step toward humanizing and normalizing romantic homosexual relationships in the eyes of church members. And that attitude shift will surely open the door to continued evolution of the church’s position on homosexual relationships.”
 I have also seen pushback from members who are upset that their tithing dollars are being used to support a university system that, in their view, now encourages prospective violation of the law of chastity. Also, the bizarre Deseret Nation (“Deznat”) started a SaveBYU movement to intimidate LGBTQ students on campus.