BYU speech therapy clinic’s cancellation of transgender services draws probe

Shane Reese, academic vice president at BYU, in a March 10 letter cited the church’s handbook in justifying the cancellation of the clinic’s gender-affirming speech therapy.

The Brigham Young University campus in Provo, Utah. Photo by Pastelitodepapa/Wikipedia/Creative Commons

(RNS) — A master’s program in speech-language pathology at Brigham Young University — the Provo, Utah, school operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — is under a formal accreditation review after it stopped providing a speech therapy service used by transgender clients to adapt their new voices. 

Gale Rice, chair of the Council on Academic Accreditation in Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology, said in a March 29 letter that the body is proceeding with an investigation to determine if the master’s program remains in compliance.

The CAA letter, addressed to Christopher Dromey of BYU’s Department of Communication Disorders, comes after the school’s administration said its on-campus speech and language clinic that provides “university academic experience for graduate students” would no longer provide gender-affirming speech therapy.

Gender-affirming voice care is primarily used by transgender people to adapt their voices to “patterns that match their gender identity,” according to the Mayo Clinic.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported in February that three transgender clients at the clinic were “scrambling to connect with new speech providers.” 

Rice wrote in her letter that BYU needs to clarify the relationship between the master’s program and the clinic, particularly which entity has authority and responsibility for the on-campus clinic, among other things.  

“The CAA may draw reasonable inferences from a program’s failure to provide a response to the adverse information,” Rice said in the letter, which was obtained by Religion News Service. 

Todd Hollingshead, a BYU spokesperson, told RNS that the school’s Department of Communication Disorders “has complied with and continues to comply” with the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association’s code of ethics and its accreditation requirements, as well as with federal laws and regulations.

Hollingshead said BYU is no longer providing gender-affirming voice and communication services for any individual, not just transgender clients, but a March 10 letter from Academic Vice President Shane Reese said that no church-sponsored university should provide this service because the church has instructed its leaders to “counsel against social transition.”

The church handbook states that a “social transition includes changing dress or grooming, or changing a name or pronouns, to present oneself as other than his or her biological sex at birth.”

“Leaders advise that those who socially transition will experience some Church membership restrictions for the duration of this transition,” according to the handbook.

The move to discontinue gender-affirming voice services at the clinic was a “religious mission-based decision,” Reese said.

In a February statement, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, the specialty’s national professional organization, said BYU’s move to “deny speech services for transgender clients is in direct opposition” to the association’s code of ethics. The school, the organization said, is putting its certified speech-language pathologists “in an untenable position.”

The northwest entrance to the John Taylor Building on Brigham Young University campus in Provo, Utah. The Speech and Language Clinic is located in the John Taylor Building, also known as the Comprehensive Clinic. Photo by Scd123/Wikipedia/Creative Commons

The northwest entrance to the John Taylor Building on Brigham Young University campus in Provo, Utah. The Speech and Language Clinic is in the John Taylor Building, also known as the Comprehensive Clinic. Photo by Scd123/Wikipedia/Creative Commons

“These employees are now being directed to act in a manner contrary to their responsibilities under the ASHA Code of Ethics,” the statement read.

BYU Academic Vice President Shane Reese. Photo via BYU

BYU Academic Vice President Shane Reese. Photo via BYU

Reese, in his letter to ASHA, said the clinic will continue to assist with other communication services, regardless of gender identity or expression, and said the school is “providing resources for the affected individuals to assist them in receiving gender affirming voice services from another provider.”

Kyle Ashworth, who hosts the “Latter Gay Stories” podcast, first reported about the investigation on his show’s website.

“It’s amazing that this university is doing what they’re doing,” Ashworth said. “It’s reckless.”

Paul Southwick, director of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, said the civil rights organization is monitoring the situation at BYU.

Paul Southwick. Photo via REAP

Paul Southwick. Photo via REAP

“It’s such a significant academic institution with a number of accredited programs from a variety of graduate disciplines,” Southwick said.

“We are closely monitoring it because there is a large LGBTQ+ student population at BYU. … There are a number of alumni that are LGBTQ+ and we’re seeing a lot of pressure from a number of areas,” Southwick said. “We believe that right now, BYU has a system of discrimination that is on the brink of collapse.”

RELATED: Are LGBTQ students at Christian schools discriminated against? A lawsuit, scholarly studies say yes.

Last April, REAP filed a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education, claiming that the department’s religious exemption allows schools that receive federal dollars to unconstitutionally discriminate against LGBTQ students. 

In February, the Department of Education dismissed another investigation into how LGBTQ students are disciplined at BYU, saying it doesn’t have enforcement authority at the private religious school. 

That complaint came after the university said it would continue to enforce a ban on same-sex dating even after that section was removed from the written version of the school’s honor code, The Salt Lake Tribune reported.

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