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School of Law event with Dallin Oaks draws protest from Lambda Law Alliance

Members of the LGBTQ+ advocacy group attended the discussion to challenge Oak’s history of homophobic beliefs

<p>Chloe Fife and Hannah Comeau, LLA members and third-year Law students, speak to those gathered on Friday morning about their experiences growing up as members of the LGBTQ+ community within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.</p>

Chloe Fife and Hannah Comeau, LLA members and third-year Law students, speak to those gathered on Friday morning about their experiences growing up as members of the LGBTQ+ community within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Members of the Lambda Law Alliance gathered on the front steps of the School of Law Friday morning to organize against a University-sponsored discussion hosting Latter-day Saints apostle Dallin Oaks. 

LLA is a community of Law students founded to provide support for those identifying as members of the LGBTQ+ community. The group expressed anger over Oaks’ presence on a panel to consider religious freedom specifically within the context of LGBTQ+ rights.

Oaks and Religious Studies Prof. Douglas Laycock — a leading authority on the law of religious liberty — discussed the future of religious freedom, debates over religious liberties and how LGBTQ+ rights play out in courts and communities across the nation. Religious Studies Prof. Kathleen Flake moderated the discussion.

The LLA’s concerns stem from Oaks’ history of homophobic and transphobic comments. 

“Lambda believes that it is dangerous to invite individuals with views openly hostile to the humanity of U.Va. Law's LGBTQ+ students to speak, particularly on issues of religious freedom and its intersection with LGTBQ+ rights,” members wrote.

Oaks has been vocal about his belief that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints not identifying as hererosexual need to have their “membership called into question.”

As president of Brigham Young University from 1971 to 1980, Oaks was outspoken regarding the role of homosexuality in the Church of the Latter-day Saints. In a 2019 speech at BYU Hawaii, he referenced “lesbian, gay, and transgender lifestyles and values” as an example of “a culture of evil and personal wickedness in the world.” Oaks’ presidency also condoned electric shock therapy studies, such as a 1976 study led by the psychology department.

In a Church of Latter-day Saints public affairs discussion, Oaks expressed his belief that homosexuality ruins heterosexual family structures and causes “loss of eternal opportunities.”

“There is no such thing in the Lord’s eyes as something called same-gender marriage,” Oaks said in the discussion. “Homosexual behavior is and will always remain before the Lord an abominable sin. Calling it something else by virtue of some political definition does not change that reality.”

The School of Law promoted the event by highlighting its intent to address the intersection of religious liberties and LGBTQ+ rights — a topic that caused LLA members to question whether Oaks was the correct person to include in the discussion.

Spencer Haydary, president of LLA and second-year Law student, said he saw these sentiments as contradictory to an event announcement sent from the School of Law to all students, which focused on Oaks' work on the Utah Compromise, legislation that extended protection to LGBTQ+ people from housing and employment discrimination while protecting religious groups’ power of discretion. 

On Thursday, the alliance announced in a tweet that any interested students were welcome to sit together with the group in the auditorium and observe the event in “solidarity and defiance.” 

“We want to make it clear that when speakers come here with a very homophobic and transphoic past, they don’t go unchallenged,” Haydary said. ”We’re not trying to ‘cancel’ him, we’re not trying to disrupt the event, our goal is to challenge his record and some of the things that might come up, because there’s no queer representiaion on this panel whatsoever.”

Wearing their LLA t-shirts, Haydary and other members met at the top of the School of Law steps at 9:30 a.m. prior to the event.

Chloe Fife and Hannah Comeau, LLA members and third-year Law students, spoke to the group about their experiences growing up as members of the LGBTQ+ community in the Church of Latter-day Saints and their desire to expose the full context of Oak’s history. 

“I feel that [the University] should have vetted him more before publicizing this event,” Fife said. “But since we’ve brought this to the University’s attention, we feel that they’ve handled the situation very well and have been very accommodating to us showing our support for the LGBTQ+ community here at this school.”

In a statement to The Cavalier Daily, Haydary wrote that the group brought the protest to the attention of School of Law administrators while planning to ensure the administration knew the rally’s peaceful and non-disruptive intent. Administration thanked the group for disclosing the event, and members have since received “nothing but positive feedback on our protest from administrators, faculty, and our peers,” wrote Haydary. 

Before moving into the auditorium, Haydary said “this is a peaceful event, not a protest,” and urged members to be respectful but prepared to challenge Oaks’ stances.

LLA members sat in the center of the auditorium and listened as Micah Schwartzman, director of Karsh Center for Law and Democracy, introduced Oaks and Laycock. The speakers then discussed the separation of church and state, the First Amendment and religious exemptions for vaccinations. Oaks and Laycock both firmly opposed vaccine exemptions on the grounds of religious liberty, referencing the strong scientific evidence of its safety.

Raelissa Glennon-Zukoff, Lambda Law Alliance member and second-year Law student, said the speech was disappointing as planned questions from the moderator failed to address the intersection of freedom of speech and LGBTQ+ rights, as advertised by the School of Law. 

“I think Professor Laycock did a great job trying to bring it back to what people had shown up for, which was to talk about religious liberties and queer rights, but Dallin was very careful to pull things back to things like vaccine mandates and other things that he knew would be less politicized and he could speak on more openly,” Glennon-Zukoff.

Before the question and answer session, LLA leadership produced a list of potential questions to ask Oaks during that session of the talk. When the question period opened, Haydary asked Oaks to address the electric shock therapy that occurred during his presidency at BYU and his comments from the BYU Hawaii speech, questioning whether he had grown more progressive.

Oaks denied the occurrence of electric shock therapy during his time at the school, explaining that the practice had been discontinued before he became president. Oaks then addressed his comments during the BYU Hawaii speech, saying he has since learned how to better relate the church to society as a whole, but ultimately defending his responsibilities as a leader in the Church of Latter-day Saints. 

“Bear in mind that my audience there was an audience of Latter-day Saints,” Oaks said. “Don't judge a private sermon by public issues.”

Glennon-Zukoff, however, said this characterization of the sermon is unfair given BYU Hawaii recorded the speech and made public his comments reverberated beyond BYU Hawaii walls.

“The speech is still up and live on BYU Hawaii’s site,” Glennon-Zukoff said. “Anybody in the public can access it.”

After the event concluded, several LLA members reported disappointment with Oaks’ explanations. 

“We love to have speakers, but not people who actively harm the community being welcomed in with open arms,” Glennon-Zukoff said.

Most members felt that the University itself has been supportive of the LBGTQ+ community’s efforts. Fife spoke positively of the group’s recent work with administration in the hopes of implementing gender neutral restrooms at the School of Law.

Moving forward, however, Fife hopes advocacy efforts by the LLA will help spur a broader conversation regarding University policies relating to those identifying as LGBTQ+ and how to create an environment respectful to and welcoming of all.

“This school is due for a broader conversation on LGBTQ+ rights and the way that’s impacted by the religious liberty discourse that happens at this school,” Fife said.

Oaks spoke again at 7 p.m. that day in the Rotunda to deliver the 2021 Joseph Smith Lecture on Religious Freedom entitled “Going Forward With Religious Freedom & Nondiscrimination.”

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