BYU teaching to same-sex marriage landscape

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Brigham Young University faces unique challenges in how it deals with the legalization of same-sex marriage, as well as how its professors prepare students to enter the workforce or continue on to graduate studies.

“It’s not insignificant,” said Lynn Wardle, a BYU law professor and specialist in family law. “Marriage is a public trust, so when you redefine the nature and meaning to include two people of the same sex, then you have profound impact on public policy.”

Because of the changes that would occur to the law, its interpretation and implementation, students and faculty would need to confront a set of questions and situations that previously did not exist.

“We would have to talk about issues that arise from same-sex couple breakups, regarding property division, alimony, child custody, visitation of children and regarding child support,” Wardle said. “When a couple splits up and there’s a dispute over custody, who gets the child? One of them is a biological mother and the other is not. Can the law discriminate in favor of the biological spouse over the non-biological spouse who’s been acting as a parent? There are a lot of issues like that.”

A change in the marriage definition, then, would add some new areas of instruction for the law school, but its effect on students’ ability to find work upon graduation would be minimal. For other departments on campus though, that’s not the case.

Alan Hawkins, a professor in BYU’s School of Family Life, and a marriage and family expert, addressed some of the issues the School of Family Life will face with the law change, especially for those students planning on grad school.

“Internally, what we do and what we teach here in the School of Family Life would be unaffected,” Hawkins said. “It does have implications, though, for the students we send out to work in various settings where they’re working trying to help families.”

One concern is students heading to grad schools across the country won’t just be admitted on merit, but also on religious beliefs and moral convictions.

“A very real risk is that there will possibly be formal litmus tests in graduate programs out there,” Hawkins said. “We’re already seeing informal ones in some graduate programs. It’s not just saying, ‘I’m willing to work with same-sex couples and families.’ It’s more than work, it’s that students’ beliefs and attitudes will have to align with the new, contemporary definition of marriage.”

BYU’s School of Family Life is a large and prominent entity, but there will still be significant hurdles for students to jump.

“We have a good track record of our students going to programs all over the country and doing very well and being very valued,” Hawkins said. “But I wouldn’t be surprised if this becomes more problematic for students who have ‘Mormon’ labeled on their forehead. We would have to work even harder to help our students negotiate the minefield.”

As for education, teachers in elementary and secondary education classrooms are now finding themselves in the middle of debates about sexuality and same-sex marriage. BYU’s teacher education program is trying to prepare teachers who can thrive in that environment.

“Being a successful teacher requires that you be able to communicate and exchange ideas with people and students who have different ideas than you do,” said Melissa Newberry, an adolescent development professor in BYU’s teacher education department.

Future teachers need to understand their own ideals, yet still facilitate discussion and understanding among students — regardless of the issue.

“What we’re interested in is having teachers explore their own identities, culturally, in all facets so they can be prepared to support their students, whoever they are,” said Erin Whiting, a professor of multicultural development in BYU’s teacher education department. “Whether the law changes or not, we try to help our students identify very clearly their moral obligation to provide an equitable learning space for their students regardless of difference, because there are always going to be differences.”

Michael Richardson, a teacher education professor at BYU, said faculty and students should make the most of the same-sex marriage discussion to help others understand why the school and LDS Church support traditional marriage.

“Whether or not the ban is lifted, I believe that we have a unique opportunity and obligation at BYU to help our students here and colleagues at other universities understand where the Church stands on this issue and why,” Richardson said. “There are ways in which we can stand by what we believe and at the same time express love and understanding for those who disagree with us.”

Richardson said he onceencountered a woman who self-identified as a lesbian and came to Utah to press for better inclusion and treatment of teens who are gay or lesbian in public schools.

“After listening to her concerns and establishing our common interest in protecting these youth, I explained some of the doctrines behind our beliefs about marriage,” Richardson said. “After our conversation, this thoughtful woman still disagreed with some of these beliefs but expressed that she now understood why we believe what we do and that it is not simply a matter of intolerance or prejudice. We both expressed the feeling that we had a greater mutual understanding.”

Changes will certainly occur in how and what students are taught. As for the university standards, they will remain the same.

“Institutionally it’s not going to impact BYU, its policies, admission standards or hiring standards,” Wardle said.

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