Several hundred students at Mormon-owned Brigham Young University chanted "If God forgives me, why can't you?" during a protest Friday aimed at pushing college officials to be more compassionate with punishments for violators of rules banning things that are commonplace at other colleges — including drinking, premarital sex, beards and piercings.
The demonstration was part of an informal campaign that started with an Instagram account created earlier this year by a former student who had a negative experience with the college's honor code office. That led to a flood of stories from other students claiming they had negative experiences over transgressions and punishments.
People held signs such as "Stop playing God" and "Practice compassion" on the campus in Provo, south of Salt Lake City. Riley Mabry, a 21-year-old student from Memphis, Tennessee, carried one with a picture of Jesus and the words, "The only big brother I need watching me."
"We shouldn't live in fear of messing up," said Mabry, who is bisexual. "That doesn't align with the teachings of the church. One of the biggest tenets is that we are capable of repentance and forgiveness."
Some students want parts of the honor code changed and others want punishments reduced, saying they agreed to adhere to the code when choosing to attend BYU, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Nearly all students are members of the faith. Current punishments for violations range from discipline to suspension and expulsion.
The "Restore Honor" group that organized the protest wants the honor code office to be more forgiving and less judgmental and more transparent, said freshman Grant Frazier.
He said students who are investigated and punished by the honor code office often end up unhappy with BYU and have their spiritual growth stunted.
"I love BYU and I love the gospel," said Frazier. "But we just think that our university can be doing a little better."
This is the latest unwanted attention for BYU's honor code, which was criticized in 2016 by female students who spoke out against the school opening honor-code investigations of students who reported sexual abuses to police. The college changed the policy to ensure that students who report sexual abuse would no longer be investigated for honor code violations.
University spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said Friday in a statement that BYU wants all students to have a positive experience and are monitoring the conversations on social media and arranging meetings with students and the director of the honor code office, Kevin Utt.
The university posted a Q&A with Utt earlier this week in which he said the rules exist to "protect the interests of the community and guide those whose behavior is not in accordance with its policies." He said 10-15 students are expelled due to honor code violations each year with the rest remaining enrolled. The college has about 33,000 students.
Actions taken against violators are "intended to develop students' moral and ethical decision-making," Utt said. There is no firm set of punishments, he said, because decisions are based on context, motivation, intent and openness.
BYU graduate Brayden Smith said he was suspended after he turned himself for something that happened with his girlfriend, declining to provide specifics because he did not feel comfortable doing so. Smith said he was left spiritually damaged after he was required to perform 35 hours of community service each month and was banned from using social media or dating apps.
"There's gigantic dark mark on my collegiate experience," said Smith.
The code has a section dedicated to "homosexual behavior," which echoes the religion's belief that being gay isn't a sin, but engaging in same-sex intimacy is. It includes a clause stating that "all forms of physical intimacy that that give expression to homosexual feelings" is prohibited.
Amy Jacobs, a lesbian student, said the rules should be the same for gay and heterosexual couples, who are allowed to hold hands and kiss.
The senior history major said she has lived in fear that someone would report her for an innocuous hug with another woman.
She held a sign that said, "Report me, I'm gay," a sarcastic nod to a common complaint among students that a culture of tattle-telling exists at the university since the honor code accepts reports of violations from other students.
"I'm afraid of the honor code office," said Jacobs, 21, of Kaysville, Utah. "I kind of hate myself here."
Jacobs said she has thought about transferring to another college but stayed at BYU because she had dedicated so much time to her studies toward a history degree and had good mentoring professors.
"BYU is a good education and I want to love it, but I just don't," said Jacobs, who will graduate this spring. "If I stayed a BYU any longer, it would kill me."