Column on Gay Marriage Prompts Dismissal

Inside Higher Ed/June 15, 2006
By Elia Powers

Days after a local newspaper published his opinion supporting same-sex marriage, an adjunct instructor at Brigham Young University learned that he would not be rehired to teach courses in the philosophy department.

“I believe opposing gay marriage and seeking a constitutional amendment against it is immoral,” Jeffrey Nielsen wrote in the June 4 Salt Lake Tribune. “Currently the preponderance of scientific research strongly suggests that same-sex attraction is biologically based. Therefore, it is as natural as a heterosexual orientation, even if rare.… [L]egalizing gay marriage reinforces the importance of committed relationships and would strengthen the institution of marriage.”

Brigham Young is affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which provides most of the university’s funding. Leaders of the Mormon church have spoken out recently against gay marriage and have encouraged members to speak to their U.S. Senators about passing a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

Nielsen, a practicing Mormon, has taught one to three courses per term at BYU for the past five years, including a philosophy course this spring. He learned he would not be allowed to fulfill his summer teaching obligation in a letter from Daniel Graham, chair of the philosophy department, that arrived shortly after the op-ed piece ran. Carri Jenkins, a BYU spokeswoman, said the choice not to rehire Nielsen came from the department, which has the authority to make personnel decisions on part-time faculty.

“The department made the decision because of the opinion piece that had been written, and based on the fact that Mr. Nielsen publicly contradicted and opposed an official statement by top church leaders,” Jenkins said.

Nielsen said he had long supported the idea of same-sex marriage but never spoke out publicly. He figured the piece would cause a stir, but he maintains he was making a political statement, not attacking church theology. “I thought they’d talk to me about the issues,” Nielsen said in an interview Wednesday. “I didn’t think they would let me go. They have every right to do that, but I think it was the wrong decision. It will breed a culture of fear and uncertainty. Academic institutions shouldn’t restrict honest opinion and the pursuit of truth.”

On its faculty home page, BYU includes a statement on its academic freedom policies.

“As a religiously distinctive university, BYU opens up a space in the academic world in which its faculty and students can pursue knowledge in light of the restored gospel as taught by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” it reads. “For those who have embraced the gospel, BYU offers an especially rich and full kind of academic freedom.”

The statement notes that everyone who works and studies at BYU subscribes to an honor code saying that the university provides an education and an atmosphere consistent with the ideals and principles of the church.

Edwin Firmage, a professor emeritus of law at the University of Utah and a member of the LDS church, said that the university is playing politics with the gay marriage issue, and that it isn’t a matter of deep theology in the Mormon faith.

“That a faculty member is being let go for a respectful comment is a disgrace to the university,” said Firmage, a BYU alumnus. “People can differ on what the gospel teaches — part of it is liberty and freedom. The word ‘university’ should mean something. This isn’t Brigham Young Seminary.”

Added Mike Thompson, executive director of Equality Utah, a group that supports free speech: “We applaud the stance that [Nielsen] made on this issue. It was a bold stance, realizing that there needs to be a divide between political opinion and religious issues in our government.”

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