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Push and Pull: Factors in How the Honor Code Can Change

An Interview with Brad Levin on the

Honor Code Change in Feb 2011

Here is how the Honor Code was written before the Feb 2011 change removed two clauses that forbade advocating homosexual behavior:

"Homosexual behavior and/or advocacy of homosexual behavior is inappropriate and violates the Honor Code. Homosexual behavior includes not only sexual relations between members of the same sex, but all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings. Advocacy includes seeking to influence others to engage in homosexual behavior or promoting homosexual relations as being morally acceptable."

Here is that paragraph after the Feb 2011 change:

"Homosexual behavior is inappropriate and violates the Honor Code. Homosexual behavior includes not only sexual relations between members of the same sex, but all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings."

Brad Levin (Formerly known as Brad Carmack; reversed the gender norm and took his wife’s surname when they married in 2013) is one of the co-founders of USGA and shared his perspective about a possible influence on that Feb 2011 change.

Avoiding a Stir

Q: What role might avoiding controversy have played in the change?


In November 2010 I finished a draft of my book, Homosexuality: A Straight BYU Student's Perspective. I shared that draft with several of my professors, friends, and with my bishop, asking them for feedback. Shortly after, I was contacted by an emeritus general authority who wrote: "Members are free to hold their own opinions on the issues involved, but it seems very unwise to publish them unless you have been asked to do so by leaders. I hope you will not publish the book for your sake and for the good of the Church that is handling the issues in the manner the Prophet and his associates feel is morally right. Church leaders undoubtedly know about the book and have great concerns, not about your views which you have your agency to have and hold, but about publishing them and sharing them. If you value my counsel, please lay this aside and keep your views private."

My bishop Jan Meilsoe also expressed his concerns about the book at this time; from his comments it seemed he didn't understand what I had written, and when I challenged him about his understanding he confessed he had only skimmed it, but that the stake president was concerned and asked him to take action. Bishop Meilsoe emphasized his hard line against homosexual conduct and reminded me of the temple recommend question about sympathizing with those who oppose church policies, including same-sex couples. He said that if I publicly advocated for acceptance of same-sex marriage in the book, I would be subject to church discipline (with the associated risk of expulsion from my grad programs as I was in a dual JD/MPA program at the time at BYU Law and the Marriott School).

The emeritus general authority contacted me again, this time saying "There is enough concern about your book that the President of the University, your priesthood leaders, and General Authorities are worried about it and my counsel remains even stronger that you need to put it aside and let anyone know to whom you have sent it that you are going to let the Church handle the issue as its leaders feel inspired to do. In no way do you want to end up in a disciplinary situation." A BYU stake president pulled me aside to condemn my book and actions and warn me that Satan was "separating me from the herd" so that he could take me down. An influential BYU professor wrote "you are not free to dictate what the reaction of Church leaders will be towards it. I would suspect (having interfaced with the General Authorities for many years) that they are not going to take kindly to your book which will, because it is logical and well-written—lead many people away from the Church’s mainstream teaching. If I were to counsel you, I would say to put the manuscript away until the Church changes its stance." Two law school deans also confronted me about the draft and reminded me they have no power over the Honor Code Office (HCO).

To keep a long story short, I nevertheless persisted in publishing the book the next month (December 2010), and sold copies to several libraries (including BYU’s and BYU Law’s) and the BYU Bookstore, where it sold out. QSaltLake featured me on the cover of their 3 Feb 2011 edition, including articles about (1) my book and (2) the Feb 2011 honor code change. My book included a chapter entitled "A Moral Case for LDS same-sex marriage" that explored moral arguments for and against same-sex marriage in the context of a thought experiment.

A professor of mine who was on the honor code committee shared with me his belief that the honor code was changed in part to make it more difficult for conservative voices to succeed in ensuring I was publicly disciplined (on the basis of violating the removed advocacy clauses, e.g. "advocacy of homosexual behavior is inappropriate and violates the Honor Code.”)

This professor proved more cognizant of the risk of HCO enforcement than I was. Shortly after the QSaltLake article, one of the trusted friends I'd shared my book with for feedback turned me into the HCO. I later obtained my honor code office file and learned the language my friend used: "I have a friend of mine that I am quite worried about. I would like this to be totally anonymous please. He has been getting deeper and deeper into homosexuality ideas, groups, etc. Please contact me and I will give more details."

Linda Rowley from the HCO responded to the email and arranged a phone call with this friend. The HCO subsequently opened an investigation, which included a review of my personal blog and YouTube channel, as well as an analysis of the QSaltLake articles. The HCO analyzed whether my book was sufficiently orthodox, including commentary such as "notice he did not say he believed in latter day prophets" from HCO staff member Kristine Long. It also stated (incorrectly), "Much of the book contradicts teachings from the First Presidency of the LDS Church." Because the HCO didn't contact me, I don't know what role the Feb 2011 honor code change played in their decision: but ultimately the dean of students and VP of student life decided "that no action was necessary at this time" and I graduated normally two months later.

It is possible that the removal of the advocacy clause prevented disciplinary action against me, and the controversy that might have resulted from disciplining a student at an accredited law school for expressing their views on same-sex marriage.

Growing Liberal Sentiment

Q: What effect might growing liberal sentiment have had on this honor code change?


Marrying a same-sex partner is a "homosexal behavior," and supporting same-sex marriage is viewed by many as "promoting homosexual relations as being morally acceptable." Thus, supporting same-sex marriage violated the honor code before the Feb 2011 change. As your earlier article described it, "This new revision now permitted students to openly support and affirm queer relationships and legislation."

The public debate on same-sex marriage was raging in late 2010 (e.g. televised oral argument in the Prop 8 case), and may have influenced the content and timing of the 2011 honor code change. It was certainly in the headlights of BYU leadership at the time: the lead counsel in the Prop 8 case, Chuck Cooper, spoke at BYU Law in September 2010 on the subject, accompanied by several VIPs including First Quorum of the Seventy member Lance Wickman and Von Keetch (former clerk for Justices Warren Burger and Antonin Scalia, as well as chief outside legal counsel to the LDS Church, later executive director of the church's Public Affairs Department and, for a time, my stake president).

Along these lines, the emeritus general authority wrote to me around that time (italics mine): "Now, I must give my counsel and express my concern on your subject. You have every right to have your viewpoints and I would think, knowing you, that they are sincere and carefully stated. I must say, however, that you have picked a subject that is fraught with peril to you and to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. To write on this subject at any time is going to stir up significant controversy, but right now is one of the most controversial times to publish anything on the subject. The Church has strong views in favor of marriage as it has been defined and practiced virtually since the beginning of time..."

Since that time in late 2010, LDS leaders have required public opposition to same-sex marriage less and less (when juxtaposed against what they required during Prop 8 in 2008). This shift coincides with same-sex marriage’s judicial and legislative victories in ever-more jurisdictions around the world. Increased societal and legal acceptance of same-sex marriage introduces conflict between required opposition to marriage equality and members' support of local laws, as well as conflict with their increasing support of marriage equality on its own merits.

By removing both advocacy clauses at that particular time, the BYU Board prevented the negative media attention and related consequences risked by disciplining a growing group of BYU students/faculty for supporting same-sex marriage. In other words, making the change in February 2011 prevented the negative consequences of disciplining a population of marriage equality-supporting BYU students/faculty that was predictably expanding. It also avoided the negative consequences of widening the gulf between what church leaders do, and what BYU does, to members who support marriage equality.

Preserving Reputation

Q: How might preserving BYU’s reputation have played a role in the change?


Without direct access to the relevant conversations of the decision makers (the Board of Trustees) and those who influenced the decision makers, it's difficult to ground a belief in the causes of the 2011 change. What we can say is that all the honor code changes of recent decades have one thing in common: recent public controversy. Most of these are detailed in USGA’s earlier article, and were directly related to homosexuality. Other examples include:

There are a great many who are invested (financially and otherwise) in the reputation of BYU and the J. Reuben Clark Law School: these stakeholders value those institutions' recognition from peers and competitors, and stood to suffer from reputational damage caused by negative media attention that would likely have resulted were a law student disciplined for violating the advocacy clauses. These institutions' ability to attract talented faculty, funding, and collaboration with faculty at other institutions depend on perceptions of these institutions upholding norms of academic freedom and freedom of thought. The voices behind these and related interests may have contributed to the change.

Leadership Aspirations

Q: Is there tension between conservative and progressive actors involved in honor code changes, and how does the leadership hierarchy play a role in that?

A: On the basis of what I've heard from sources more seasoned than I and more familiar with the politics in such organizations, I would be surprised to find no tension between conservative voices and relatively progressive voices in the honor code committee, the Board of Trustees, and CES. In addition to the communications I've already shared, another BYU professor wrote me:

"I am not at all surprised at the warning from the ex-GA, nor the sensitivity of Pres. Samuelson; such stuff is totally predictable. People in the hierarchy are part of an organization that wants to control everything possible that is in any way associated with them. Individuals elevated to positions in that hierarchy get there by buying totally into the mindset. And yes, you should realize that the folks upstairs have very very long memories. If you personally have any leadership aspirations at all, this book will greatly complicate your future...

We are always counseled to not "aspire to ecclesiastical office" -- but a great proportion of our people definitely do --- and that definitely includes BYU presidents... I say this not to discourage you from publishing a truly unusual and valuable work, but so that you may make decisions fully aware of long-term implications."

The influential BYU professor I mentioned wrote similarly:

“You can be as smart as can be and as worthy as any other person and still be passed over for leadership positions because the Church leaders do not want to run the risk of having you in a power position but in opposition to Church policy and doctrine. Take a long, hard look at what you want in life, what you want your Church opportunities to be, how you want to be viewed by Church leaders, and where your projected course will take you.”

I’ve heard some cite this reasoning as an example of why one should expect resistance to change by those high in the hierarchy. Those who hold positions of power, or aspire to leadership positions in LDS structures, have an incentive to employ a conservative mindset when confronted with these issues. While many expect that the policies of CES will change as time passes and leadership roles are given to more liberally minded members of the church, this theory may prove ineffectual since liberal minded members are often passed over for leadership positions.

Internal Conflict

Q: Do you think there is conflict within the Honor Code committee and CES?


Given that:

  1. Many members of the organizations involved in the Honor Code both then (2011) and now (2021) are deeply conservative

  2. Aspirants in the church hierarchy have an interest in not being seen to contradict those in power (those with a mainstream mindset are more likely to receive leadership roles)

  3. Peer institutions of higher learning and mainstream academia are part of a liberal consensus that expects (1) tolerance of students’ and faculty members' support of marriage equality and (2) academic and intellectual freedoms

  4. That liberal consensus is inconsistent with the honor code's current constraints on religious and intellectual freedom, as well as its historical limits on supporting marriage equality,

yes, I expect there are conflicting interests within these organizations that can create or deter change.


Brad Levin

Gabi Svozil



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