(Update II ) For an updated post on the coverage and photos of the BYU Cheney Protest, see here. (Update I) The Deseret News reports on the Church’s announcement here. The Salt Lake Tribune was on the defensive here. The Church has issued a formal statement on the Dick Cheney invitation to speak at BYU’s commencement in April. The Church’s official statement is on its website here. The subject of Mr. Cheney’s invitation has been discussed at length in the Bloggernacle. I started this discussion over at Bloggernacle Times, just after the story first broke in the Salt Lake Tribune. You can find links to the rest of the Bloggernacle discussions at this prior post here.

The Church’s official statement takes issue with a particularly harsh editorial in the Salt Lake Tribune. The Church statement notes that despite differing political views of BYU students or Church members, the invitation should be seen as one extended to a high ranking elected official and nothing more:

An invitation by Brigham Young University to the vice president of the United States to be the commencement speaker next month has triggered discussion and some controversy over the issue of political neutrality.

Whatever the personal views of individual students or other members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the invitation is seen by the university’s board of trustees as one extended to someone holding the high office of vice president of the United States rather than to a partisan political figure.

The Church then takes the Salt Lake Tribune to task for attacking the Church’s political neutrality:

The Salt Lake Tribune ran two articles in its edition this morning (29 March) related to the pending visit of the vice president.

One, a prominently displayed personal opinion piece by a political reporter, criticizes the Church, in intemperate and disrespectful language, for inviting Vice President Dick Cheney to be the commencement speaker.

The reporter’s central point seems to be that inviting the vice president — presumably this particular vice president — is inconsistent with the Church’s often-stated political neutrality.

The other article — in the same newspaper — is an editorial that urges that the vice president be allowed to speak because “this is democracy at work” and that an audience of college graduates is capable of assessing what he says. The newspaper further says that the decision was for the BYU board of trustees to make, “just as it is the right of anyone who disagrees with the choice to say so.”

The editorial to which the Church objected was written by Tribune columnist Rebecca Walsh. I read the article, and would have to agree that she took some cheap political shots at the Church and the First Presidency. And, more interesting is that the Tribune’s editorial board apparently does not see this invitation as such a sinister move by Church authorities. Rather, they concluded that it was the Church’s right to make this decision and that it demonstrates “democracy at work.” The headline claimed the invitation would foster healthy debate, and indeed it has. While I disagree with the Church’s decision to invite Mr Cheney I do agree the Church certainly had the right to do so. Furthermore, I do not believe the Church has crossed the political neutrality line, even by inviting such a divisive figure as Dick Cheney.

The Church then reviews its political neutrality policy, which in shortened form is essentially:

1. Prohibits Church leaders from endorsing political candidates on behalf of the Church;

2. Bans the use of its chapels for partisan political purposes;

3. Does not tell its members or LDS elected officials how to vote.

The Church also noted some of the encouragement it offers members regarding political participation:

1. Encourages members to be responsible citizens;

2. Encourages members to be politically active, but respectful of other differing political viewpoints.

The Church statement defended Cheney’s invitation and disclosed that it has already invited Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, next fall, as well as possibly Chief Justice John Roberts of the United States Supreme Court to visit and speak on campus:

The invitation to the vice president of the United States is not a violation of that policy, any more than inviting the majority leader of the Senate would be. In fact, Senator Harry Reid — a Democrat from the opposite political pole to the vice president — has already accepted such an invitation for this fall. That invitation has been in process for many months — long before the announcement of the vice president’s visit.

Is it appropriate for a university — even one that espouses a policy of political neutrality — to have as featured speakers the holders of some of the highest offices in the land? Of course it is. And whoever the visitor — the vice president, the majority leader of the Senate or the chief justice of the Supreme Court (another scheduled fall speaker) — the university and the student body will listen, evaluate and react to them as intelligent citizens capable of making up their own minds about their messages.

The Church has given great leeway to those members and even non members who might disagree with its decision. Surprisingly, at least to me, the Church as authorized an on campus protest for those who want to share their disagreement with this decision and Mr. Cheney’s political positions. The Salt Lake Tribune is reporting that BYU has authorized such a protest:

Brigham Young University officials will allow students to hold an on-campus protest opposing Vice President Dick Cheney’s visit to campus to deliver the commencement speech. It will be held April 4 on Brigham Square, BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said, adding LDS Church leaders’ invitation to Cheney still stands, and the speech will take place.

“We recognize on any given day and any given subject that there are many diverse views, and there are diverse views on this situation as well,” Jenkins said. “We recognize that members of our campus community are entitled to their opinions.”

This first protest will be next week; however, students are pushing for a second protest, again on campus, for the day Mr. Cheney speaks:

The College Democrats would like to have another protest the day of Cheney’s visit, but have not decided on a location and have yet to receive school permission. The student club would like to protest next to the Marriott Center, where Cheney will speak, but school leaders worry about security.

“The administration has been very accommodating about both protests,” Bailey said. “For the 26th, they said they won’t stick us in the pool or some back closet. I’m sure we can come up with a place we both agree with.”

The Deseret News is reporting a similar story about BYU allowing student protests on campus:

PROVO — An on-campus protest opposing the invitation of Vice President Dick Cheney to speak at the April commencement ceremony has been approved by Brigham Young University officials.

A group of students met Wednesday night to organize the protest, scheduled for next Wednesday, as well as other possible demonstrations in the Provo area. The location and time for the protest at BYU have not yet been decided, said BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins. “I don’t have all the details,” she said. “I do know it’s through the College Democrats (club).” Jenkins said, however, the university will not reconsider its decision to invite the vice president. “It has been confirmed,” she said.

BYU officials rarely allow protests on university property, and participating students said they were surprised to receive permission. “To be completely honest, I wasn’t as surprised when I found that Cheney was speaking as I was when (university officials) said they would allow a protest,” said Eric Bybee, a senior who has been heavily involved in organizing what he calls the “anti-Cheney” movement.

The fact that BYU is allowing an on campus protest, I think speaks volumes about the Church’s political neutrality here. They certainly didn’t have to allow such a protest. I know when I was a student back in the 70’s and 80’s, such a protest would have been unheard of. In fact, even last week, BYU did not allow a political protest on campus by Soulforce.

While I strongly disagree with the timing of this invitation, and the negative PR impacts it will have on the Church both at home and abroad, I am quite pleased to see the Church allow dissent among members with differing views. It will be an interesting few weeks at BYU.