Brigham Young University faces a $10M Federal Suit for Racial Discrimination
After decades of accusations of unfair treatment from black students, including black student athletes, on the campus of Brigham Young University (BYU), a black Kenyan national is the first to sue the Mormon-owned flagship school in Provo, Utah, in federal court for racial discrimination. This history-making case is set for trial in federal court beginning June 2019. The plaintiff identified in the lawsuit as John Oirya, contends that BYU discriminated against him on the basis of his race, color, national origin and gender over a course of 10 years. The lawsuit asserts that BYU administration unjustly and unlawfully discharged him from campus in the spring of 2013 over a host of fraudulent claims, contained in more than 1,131 pages of records, that BYU invented against him. In addition, the suit includes defamation against BYU, because the school secretly and unlawfully released information in these records to Auburn University without his knowledge, awareness or authorization. Auburn officials relied upon these allegations from BYU to expel him from his doctoral program and employment at the University in the spring of 2015. Mr. Oirya is separately suing Auburn for $5M in federal court because the University did not notify him regarding the complaints it had received from BYU prior to ousting him over the allegations and, hence, he was denied due process.
The plaintiff initially filed the lawsuit against BYU in November 2016, alleging gender discrimination. Currently pending before court is his second amended complaint, in which he is seeking the court’s leave to include additional claims of discrimination on the basis of his race, color and national origin. The proposed amended complaint alleges 18 causes of action and seeks $10M in damages against BYU. BYU is opposing the amended complaint, possibly setting a stage for a protracted legal confrontation. Surprisingly, this is the first known racial discrimination lawsuit against BYU under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that Congress enacted to prohibit schools that receive federal financial assistance from discriminating on the basis of race, color or national origin. The lawsuit claims that throughout Mr. Oirya’s enrollment at BYU, from 2002 through 2013, the university discriminated against and harassed him by fostering a hostile educational and work environment on campus. The amended complaint further alleges that this racially hostile environment was perpetuated through pervasive folklore at BYU that originated from the Utah-based mainline Mormon Church and its leaders. The amended complaint lists several racist teachings by the Mormon faith and its leadership that BYU allegedly incorporated into its educational environment, including its course curricula, classroom discourses, libraries and work environment. In his book, When Race Religion and Sport Collide: Blacks at BYU and Beyond, Darron T. Smith, a former instructor at BYU, documents several experiences of former black student athletes at BYU who equally felt they were unfairly profiled, targeted by school officials, harassed and discriminated against on the basis of race.
This stunning news comes just one week after loopholes were exposed in BYU’s 2016 honor code and Title IX policy changes that were supposed to grant victims of sexual assault amnesty. And now it seems the university is poised for a court battle over its practices surrounding race. The Mormon Church or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) is no stranger to racial controversy stemming from racist teachings by church authorities dating back to Brigham Young that black people were cursed descendants from the biblical counterfigure, Cain. These religious views ignited several protests at colleges and universities during the 1960s. In 2017, CBS Sports did a documentary on one such protest that took place against BYU at the University of Wyoming in 1969, when 14 black football players chose to protest against the Church-owned school by wearing black armbands during the game. When they took their concerns to their coach prior to the game, he swiftly removed all of the 14 black athletes from the team without any discussion. These men became known as “The Black 14,” and their story made national headlines as they were forced to suspend their education and leave school amid the turmoil.
In 1978, the LDS Church reversed its 130-year-old policy and practice of denying black men access to its lay priesthood and denying women access to its temples but failed to remove its offensively racist commentary from its official church publications. Currently, the curriculum for Mormon youth, ages 12 through 18, known as “Aaronic Priesthood Manual 3” (page 128), and the curriculum for college-aged young Mormon adults, ages 19 through 30, known as “Eternal Marriage Student Manual” (page 169) both continue to declare that the faith’s members should “generally” marry spouses of the same racial background. In December 2013, the Mormon Church released an essay entitled “Race and the Priesthood,” claiming that “[t]oday, the [Mormon] Church disavows [its] theories advanced in the past that … mixed-race marriages are a sin.” However, the LDS Church continues to promote and disseminate this racist teaching. It has failed to remove the offensive language from its curricula. The teaching is still conspicuously posted on the Mormon church’s official website to the current day, www.lds.org.
The lawsuit against BYU may have major implications for other academic institutions throughout the United States that receive federal financial assistance in how they respond to complaints of harassment and discrimination in their learning environments. In 1979, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a landmark lawsuit Cannon v. University of Chicago, mandated that all federally-funded institutions adopt, publish and enforce detailed policies and procedures for ending harassment and discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin and gender in the same manner. Since then, many schools have generally published their stringent policies, and appointed school officials (usually known as Title IX coordinators), to resolve gender-based complaints of harassment and discrimination. However, schools including BYU have generally neglected to respond to race, color and national origin-based complaints with the same vigor as to gender discrimination. Accordingly, Mr. Oirya is asking the federal court to order BYU to equally adopt and publish policies on race, color and national origin and appoint school officials, known as Title VI coordinators, experienced with the needs of students of color to implement these policies on its campus. If successful, the ruling may set a precedent for all other colleges and universities throughout the United States. A GoFundMe account has been established to raise funds to cover the legal costs for Mr. Oirya’s ongoing litigation. The fundraising campaign states that the lawsuit will bring about much needed justice and reform for black students who are disproportionately harassed and discriminated by BYU and other discriminatory institutions in the United States, for dubious or unfounded allegations.
 See Aaronic Priesthood Manual 3” (page 128):
 See “Eternal Marriage Student Manual” (page 169):
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