A BYU professor says she was fired after LBGTQ advocacy. Are more faculty at risk?

Sue Bergin had been at the private religious school for 28 years and was an ally for students.

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sue Bergin, a former adjunct professor at BYU, stands for a portrait in Orem on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022.

Sue Bergin can think of only one reason why Brigham Young University fired her.

It wasn’t her performance. She had years of top marks on her evaluations, she said, from her students and her supervisor.

And it wasn’t how she taught her writing courses. In fact, she was about to be promoted to director of the writing center for the business school.

Instead, Bergin believes it had to be because of her LGBTQ advocacy.

“I’ve gone through every possibility,” she said, “and there’s just no other reason. I’m a good loving person and good at my job. If that’s not enough for BYU, what can I say?”

At 64 years old, Bergin has spent almost half of her life — 28 years — working at the private religious school operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She considers herself a faithful church member and has loved it there. She also depended on it as her only income. But on Dec. 16, she said, she was told that her time there as an adjunct professor had come to an end.

Bergin said the school declined to give her a reason or tell her who made the decision. In Utah, an employment-at-will state, that’s legal. All she knows is that an administrator above her supervisor made the call and her department chair was instructed to carry it out.

She recalls him telling her late that night: “I’m so sorry. I don’t know what’s going on.”

Department chairs typically make the call on employees, which is why Bergin thinks someone higher up at the school had an issue with the perspectives she shared online and sometimes in the classroom.

When her students asked, Bergin said, she didn’t shy away from telling them that she believed in love for everyone. And she’d wear a rainbow pin on the first day of class every semester to let them know she was a safe person to talk to. Sometimes she’d mention that she has two gay brothers.

At BYU, though, same-sex relationships are not allowed, in accordance with the faith’s teachings. And students who break the rules can be disciplined, including expulsion.

Michael Austin, a BYU alumnus and vice president at the University of Evansville, a private Methodist college in Indiana, thinks Bergin’s guess about her termination is right. And he said it appears that BYU might be trying to crack down on more faculty whom leaders see as stepping out of line, especially when it comes to the LGBTQ community.

“There have been a lot of indications to those of us who try to understand what’s going on at BYU,” Austin said. “It’s like watching the Kremlin during the Cold War sometimes. But there have been signs.”

Austin said he started noticing the trend with the speech on campus from Latter-day Saint apostle Jeffrey Holland last August, one of several recent events at BYU that have drawn national attention. Holland criticized faculty members and students who challenge the faith’s teachings on same-sex marriage. He said they should instead take up their intellectual “muskets” to defend “the doctrine of the family and ... marriage as the union of a man and a woman.”

Following that, BYU made stricter its policy on protesting after a group of students lit up the “Y” on the mountain above the school in rainbow colors to speak out against how those who are LGBTQ are treated.

Now, any display is against the rules where “two or more people gather to raise awareness about, or express a viewpoint on, an issue or cause.” A spokesperson for the school said that could include two people wearing rainbow items or two professors putting rainbow signs on their doors.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU students shine Pride colors on the "Y" on the mountain above BYU in Provo on Thursday, March 4, 2021.

And then last month, the school announced that new Latter-day Saint faculty would need to have a current temple recommend — a card issued by local church leaders attesting to the holder’s adherence to the faith’s principles and practices — in order to work at BYU. That more closely ties employment with being a committed member of the church.

To Austin, the moves appear to be strengthening “some legal protections” for removing faculty. “It all looks to be part of a pattern,” he said. “And Sue Bergin is part of that pattern.”

‘Gentle and educational’ advocacy

Bergin certainly doesn’t hide her thoughts, which have sometimes gone against the stances of church leaders. But she never thought she had crossed a line.

She watched her two brothers grow up in the church and saw firsthand as they dealt with discrimination.

The faith welcomes LGBTQ members to attend services. But it opposes same-sex marriage and considers acting on same-sex attraction a sin. Its guidelines state: “Sexual relations are proper only between a man and a woman who are legally and lawfully wedded as husband and wife.”

Those who act against that chastity rule risk losing their standing in the church.

Bergin said her brothers chose to leave when they found partners. And she doesn’t fault them; she said she doesn’t want LGBTQ members to feel they have to be lonely and unloved to stay in the faith.

Even though she loves the church, she said, that doesn’t mean she agrees with everything it stands for.

“I feel that my religion has taught me that I’m required to do these things, that I’m supposed to reach out to people hurting, that the marginalized are the ones Jesus wrapped his arms around first,” Bergin said.

And so she has advocated for her beliefs on Facebook, mostly sharing posts from Mama Dragons, a group of mothers with LGBTQ children, amplifying perspectives from LGBTQ folks and providing some resources. She said her aim has been to reach fellow LDS friends who haven’t had a queer family member and don’t understand the pain.

“I was trying to be mostly pretty darn gentle and educational,” she said.

She’s talked, too, a little bit about her dad, Allen Bergin, who was a psychology professor at BYU and who championed the idea that “homosexuals” could make themselves straight through self-discipline and a mixed orientation marriage. Allen Bergin said in an apology in 2020 that he regretted that work and has changed his perspective.

Sue Bergin has also been a member of the LGBTQ support group Mormons Building Bridges since 2013. And she volunteered at the Provo Pride festival.

In a Facebook post announcing her firing from BYU, Bergin said she is “clearly an advocate” in her private life. But, she noted, she “only rarely said things in the classroom that reflect my advocacy.” She’s surprised that the decision came now.

Bergin added in the post, which has since been shared and commented on by hundreds: “Everything I have said has been motivated by my hope for BYU to truly be a place of love, belonging, and inclusion.”

She said she wanted to protect her “beloved students” and be an ally. That’s why she wore the rainbow pin, and every semester, in the two sections she taught, a few students would come up to her after class.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rainbow "Y" pins sit at a booth at Kiwanis Park on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021.

Bergin also included a discussion of the LGBTQ community in her writing course. She was required by the BYU Marriott School of Business to have a unit on diversity, equity and inclusion and felt it was appropriate to talk about.

Sometimes students would ask her how she felt. And she’d tell them: “I respectfully disagree with the church position on marriage equality. And I wrestle and struggle with that.”

She’d always add: “You’re young adults. You need to make up your own minds on it.”

Bergin wonders now if maybe that prompted someone to file a complaint against her.

Previous firings

When asked about Bergin’s termination, Brigham Young University spokesperson Carri Jenkins said the school cannot comment “on specific reasons for renewal or nonrenewal of adjunct faculty contracts.”

She added: “These semesterlong contracts are renewed or not renewed for many different reasons.”

Jenkins also noted that the school appreciates adjunct faculty’s “commitment to BYU’s mission.”

Austin noted that part-time adjunct faculty like Bergin are more at risk to be fired than a tenured faculty member. They don’t have the same protections and are considered contract employees.

“Legally, they’re in a very precarious position,” he said. “There’s no assurance of a contract from semester to semester, even if they’ve been there for 30 years.”

Most of the time, though, if an adjunct is let go, it’s because a university faces budget cuts or if the professor didn’t perform well, Austin said. Neither of those seems to apply to Bergin, especially as the school is financed by the LDS Church.

BYU has fired at least two other adjunct professors in the past for being outspoken in support of LGBTQ rights.

The first case came in 2006. Jeffrey Nielsen, a part-time philosophy instructor, was let go after he published a column in The Salt Lake Tribune questioning the LDS Church’s support of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. At the time, Nielsen said, “I don’t want to hurt the church or destroy anyone’s faith. I want to do things to strengthen the church.”

The school told him in a letter that “we do not consider it our responsibility to correct, contradict or dismiss official pronouncements of the church.”

The second case came in 2017 after BYU-Idaho adjunct professor Ruthie Robertson published an 854-word post on her private Facebook page about her support of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender causes, including some opposition to the church’s stance.

(Courtesy Ruthie Robertson) Former BYU-Idaho professor Ruthie Robertson wears a rainbow shirt in this undated photo.

“It’s a controversial position, of course, but I had no inclination that this [post] would affect my job,” Robertson said in a telephone interview then. “That completely blew me away.”

She said she was called in by school administrators to take down the post. She declined. The school did not comment at the time but confirmed her departure.

BYU has not, however, appeared to take similar action against those who speak against the LGBTQ community. For instance, a professor who publicly called a gay student a Book of Mormon term associated with the anti-Christ did not lose his job.

The faith’s handbook repeats a statement church leaders gave after the 2015 ruling making same-sex marriage legal in the United States. It notes: “The church insists on its leaders’ and members’ right to express and advocate religious convictions on marriage, family, and morality free from retaliation or retribution. The church is also entitled to maintain its standards of moral conduct and good standing for members.”

Are other faculty at risk?

Bergin said she’s heard from other faculty who have been called in by BYU leadership to explain their LGBTQ advocacy.

Two tenured professors told The Tribune they have been counseled by administration in the past year about their LGBTQ allyship. They were not fired but were told to stop speaking against the church’s leaders, they said. The Tribune agreed not to name them because they fear further retribution.

Requiring temple recommends for new LDS faculty, Austin said, means that the school and the church are strictly setting the faith’s standards as standards for employment.

That has been the case before, though on a lesser level. Previously, professors had to have an ecclesiastical endorsement to teach at the school. Those endorsements, an annual review process by bishops or other faith leaders to make sure someone is acting appropriately, are less strict than the formal requirements to have a temple recommend.

According to the church’s website, a temple recommend is more stringent, with a set of questions from a bishop and stake (regional) leader. It requires that you “strive to do your duty in the church, attending your sacrament, priesthood and other meetings. You must also strive to obey the rules, laws and commandments of the gospel.”

The update sent to faculty notes “the church may change these terms at any time.” Current staffers do not have to follow the new procedure, but some said they have been told that incentives, like pay increases, will be tied to doing so.

Austin said having that requirement now allows BYU to have a universal set of rules for all faculty, which helps exempt it from appearing to discriminate, particularly with the LGBTQ community.

“Before, if BYU were to say, fire a professor for walking down the street holding hands with his husband but doesn’t do the same thing for a heterosexual couple, that’s discriminatory,” he said. “But now, all new professors are required to uphold the same requirement with having a temple recommend. And the decision is made by the church, not the school, on who can be employed.”

Austin said he believes adjuncts are the “low-hanging fruit” right now, “but I’m afraid they won’t be the last” with these changes.

Bergin said she was told there was no appeal process at BYU. She was looking forward to directing the writing center at the business school, but now she’s looking for freelance work.

Even though adjunct positions typically don’t pay much, the rate was higher at BYU than at nearby public colleges, where she said she’d see about a 40% cut for a similar position.

And personally, Bergin said, she’s not sure how she’s going to move forward. “I loved the students. I loved my faculty, my colleagues.”

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sue Bergin, a former professor at BYU, is pictured with her dog in Orem on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022.