Brigham Young fires professor for "Heavenly Mother' reference

Published July 6, 1996|Updated Sept. 16, 2005

Brigham Young University English professor and feminist Gail Turley Houston has been given her walking papers.

Among the reasons listed for Turley's dismissal from BYU, which is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was that she chose to refer to God as "mother" and "father."

Houston acknowledges praying to both Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father, especially after her own mother died in 1992.

In a 1993 speech at the Sunstone Symposium, an independent forum for Mormon studies, Houston said, "I did not know my Mother-in-Heaven until just a few years ago _ and I ask why would my church want me to forget or deny her _ I cannot and I will not."

The only church doctrine on this point is a comment in a 1991 LDS General Conference speech by now-President Gordon B. Hinckley.

"I regard it as inappropriate for anyone in the church to pray to our Mother in Heaven," said Hinckley, who then served as a high-ranking counselor to the church.

Turley's teaching, scholarship and service on university committees all were given high marks by most of her students and fellow faculty. In fact, her department and college approved her application for tenure, known as "continuing status" at BYU.

But the University Faculty Committee on Rank & Status reversed that recommendation.

The panel's decision, ratified in June by the president and provost, was that Houston's "actions and words on and off campus" were "harmful to tenets held by the church and the university," according to the termination letter signed by James Gordon, the associate academic vice president.

"Not only have these activities failed to strengthen the moral vigor of the university, they have enervated its very fiber," said the letter that Houston received.

It also was signed by Randall L. Jones, dean of the College of Humanities and C. Jay Fox, chairman of the English Department.

Specifically, the letter said a few students reported that Houston did not offer enough "Gospel insights" and was not "spiritually inspiring."

Although more than 95 percent of Houston's students gave her positive evaluations, the few who did not were of grave concern to the school.

Moreover, the letter charged Houston with "contradicting fundamental church doctrine and deliberately attacking the church."

The letter also said Houston publicly made statements that "seem to reject the right of (Mormon) prophets to proclaim doctrine and priesthood leaders to teach about the role of women."

For this allegation, they also cited the 1993 Sunstone speech.

"Isn't free agency sacred for women too?" Houston asked in the speech. "Isn't it wrong to allow men to tell us what our purpose is?"

Houston also was accused of expressing "gratitude for and agreement with individuals who have been excommunicated or disciplined by the church for apostasy."

This stems from a campaign to defend, by peaceful rather than antagonistic means, the group of Mormon writers and thinkers who were excommunicated for apostasy in 1993. The campaign was called "White Roses," for the 1,000 roses given to church leaders as a gesture of support for both the disciplined group and the leaders. Houston spearheaded participation among BYU faculty.

Finally, the university alleges that Houston is not a good spiritual role model for students because of statements she made in a one-page essay in the off-campus newspaper, The Student Review.

"No one knows when one of life's painful experiences may, for a short or extensive period of time, seem to shatter one's heretofore stalwart faith,"Houston wrote. "We might offer a great service to our students by teaching them that periods of crisis of faith or mild questioning are normal."

Though Houston wrote numerous memos to the faculty and administration committees, her explanations of her actions were "unconvincing," the committee's letter said.

"I've cried a lot. I'll miss my students and my colleagues," she said, in a recent interview. "But I feel peaceful and calm because I've tried to speak the truth as I see it about issues vital to the church and university community."

Mormon beliefs are "at the center of my life," she said. For the school "to question my commitment to the Gospel is practically impossible for me to understand."

Several of Houston's associates at BYU were appalled and grieved at the decision.

"I regret this profoundly," said political science professor Donna Lee Bowen. "So much of what is going on is an inability of people to hear and understand each other."

Bowen said Houston has an obvious love and concern for the LDS Church and its teachings and has expressed that in her public speeches.

"She often attempts to show how some of the problems we are facing today, particularly about women, can only be resolved well through the Gospel of Jesus Christ," Bowen said.

English professor Claudia Harris said the loss of Houston, who focuses on Victorian literature, will be felt immediately.

"This will make it difficult for the department to serve its women students, especially those doing theses in women's studies," Harris said.

"Now we have no women faculty to cover two centuries of British literature."

This case differs significantly from the 1992 firing of anthropologist David Knowlton and feminist English teacher Cecelia Konchar Farr, who were charged with substandard scholarship.

Both felt they were let go because of unwelcome ideas, a charge the university disputed.

But Gordon, the academic vice president, said Houston's dismissal is not an attack on feminism.

"Being a feminist is not a ground to be denied continuing status," Gordon said. "There are many feminists who teach here."

Gordon praised Houston as a teacher, scholar and person but said the university cannot allow faculty to contradict church doctrines.

"Most people come to BYU because they are attracted to an LDS environment," he said.

Houston, who filed an appeal with BYU, has since accepted a tenure-track position with University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

"I am thrilled to go there," she said. "It is a wonderful faculty, young, vibrant and open-minded."