Sunday, October 08, 2006

"Inside Higher Education" article on Nielsen

An institution that marches to the beat of both the tenants of higher
education and of religious authority will always have tension. This
is receiving some attention by those who monitor academic standards
among universities.

Column on Gay Marriage Prompts Dismissal

Days after a local newspaper published his opinion piece 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.=85 [L]egalizing gay marriage reinforces the importance of
committed relationships and would strengthen the institution of

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

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 =97 part of it is liberty and freedom.
The word 'university' should mean something. This isn't Brigham Young

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

=97 Elia Powers
The original story and user comments can be viewed online at

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