While most employers are forbidden from asking job applicants about their marital status, Brigham Young University can.

The school, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has always had the right to question applicants about their marital status, said James D. Gordon, BYU associate academic vice president.But it was only in October that BYU got permission in writing from the U.S. Department of Education because "somebody raised the issue," Gordon said.

"The church teaches that people have the duty to marry if they have the opportunity," Gordon told the Deseret News. "If candidates are not married, we would like to know if they support the church's teachings about marriage and family."

BYU zoology professor Duane Jeffery said administrators who hire BYU faculty have inquired about marital status for at least the 30 years he has taught at the Provo school. Jeffery doesn't think interviewers who query about marriage are too intrusive, but he sees a danger if they begin to use marital status as a primary factor in hiring decisions.

"Would the university hire Steve Young as a football coach?" Jeffery asked, in reference to the professional football quarterback who is perhaps the most high-profile bachelor in the LDS Church. "Do you think his singleness would be an issue with (administrators)? I don't think it should be. Marriage is good for some people and not so good for others."

The 1972 education amendments to the federal law known as Title IX prohibit federally subsidized institutions from inquiring about marital status during interviews. Because BYU receives federal research funds and some students receive federal financial aid, the school normally would be bound by the law designed to prevent discrimination.

BYU, however, used an exemption written into Department of Education regulations and crafted specifically for religious schools to get around the prohibition. BYU President Merrill J. Bateman told the Office for Civil Rights in an August 1997 letter that determining marital and family status helps BYU administrators assess a candidate's level of commitment to LDS Church principles and fitness for a job at BYU.

Bateman's letter was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by a group of BYU students who publish the off-campus newspaper Student Review.

In her response to Bateman, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Norma V. Cantu asserted that " . . . (LDS Church) doctrine establishes certain values with respect to family life and morality" and therefore she granted BYU approval to ask candidates about marital status.

Gordon said that BYU has hired faculty who are single and will continue to do so. He said the real issue is not whether a candidate is married, but whether that person will be a positive role model for BYU students, the overwhelming majority of whom belong to the LDS Church.

Most candidates for a job at BYU won't be asked about their marital status by administrators, but rather by an LDS bishop who conducts a worthiness interview. The bishop also asks whether the candidate fulfills family responsibilities, Gordon said, and the lay clergyman also assesses whether the faculty candidate is worthy of a temple recommend.

For non-LDS members who apply for jobs at BYU, the process isn't much different. Their commitment to live consistent with LDS Church principles must be ascertained by their own religious leaders.

For Jeffery, current hiring practices represent progress from the days when no single males were considered for jobs at BYU. Today, his department has a newly hired professor who is highly qualified - and single.

"To hire a physicist, I want the best physics instructor I can find," Jeffery said. "Of course I want a responsible citizen, but whether he has 15 children is not important to me."