Two Activists in Mormon Church Threatened With Excommunication

The New York Times/June 11, 2014

By Laurie Goodstein

Two Mormons who have gained national attention for pushing their church to ordain women to the priesthood and to accept openly gay members have been notified this week that they face excommunication for apostasy.

The two are Kate Kelly, a human rights lawyer who founded the Ordain Women movement, and John P. Dehlin, the creator of a popular online forum for Mormons and a doctoral candidate in psychology who has published his research into the problems faced by gay church members.

It is the first time since 1993, when the church ejected a handful of intellectuals known as the “September Six,” that it has moved so forcefully to quash such prominent critical voices.

The move is a sudden change of course for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which had been working to project an image of greater diversity and openness. The church’s “I’m a Mormon” advertising campaign featured an ethnic rainbow of faces and some members who proudly identified as feminist, gay or liberal. And in the last year, the church has been trying to comfort members with doubts by posting essays on its website addressing delicate historical and theological issues, such as polygamy and why blacks were mostly excluded from the priesthood until 1978.

The church issued a statement late Wednesday saying: “Local leaders have the responsibility to clarify false teachings and prevent other members from being misled. Decisions are made by local leaders and not directed or coordinated by church headquarters.”

Ms. Kelly and Mr. Dehlin were notified of the action against them on two consecutive days, leading them to suspect that the move was coordinated by officials in church headquarters in Salt Lake City.

Mr. Dehlin was sent a letter on Saturday by the president of his stake, or church region, whom he said he had never met, calling on him to either resign from the church or face a hearing before a disciplinary council. The letter, which Mr. Dehlin provided to The New York Times, said, “Because of the love I have for you, I have become concerned about some of your recent statements and actions regarding this church and your place in it.” It cited an Internet posting in which Mr. Dehlin wrote that he no longer believed many fundamental “truth claims” the church makes.

Mr. Dehlin said that he considered himself a Mormon, along with his wife and four children, and that he loved the church, but he has been open about his doubts. He is the founder of “Mormon Stories,” a website with podcast interviews on hot-button issues for Mormons questioning their faith. His following is not insubstantial: Many podcasts were downloaded 40,000 or 50,000 times, but some twice that amount. He said his site tried to walk the line between advocating for the church, and the hostility to the church often seen on “ex-Mormon” websites.

A speech he gave at a TED event at Utah State University last November on being an “ally” to gay Mormons was also widely viewed online.

Mormon Stories has always been about administering to those who have doubt and have hard questions,” Mr. Dehlin said in an interview on Wednesday. “And I think Kate is doing the same thing.”

“I worry that the church is kind of shooting the messenger,” he said. “They’re shooting the people who are trying to help and be part of the solution.”

The Ordain Women movement, organized only last year, has clearly agitated church leaders by mobilizing protesters to travel to Salt Lake City for the church’s big general conference, in order to stand in line and be turned away from entering the male-only priesthood meeting. The last such demonstration in March drew about 500 protesters who carried “proxy cards” signed by more than 400 additional supporters. However, the notion of opening the male-only priesthood to women does not have broad support, even from many Mormon women who say they are concerned about inequality and gender issues in the church.

Ms. Kelly received an email on June 8 from her local bishop in Virginia informing her that she faced “disfellowshipment or excommunication, on the grounds of apostasy,” and calling her to a disciplinary council hearing on June 22. Disfellowshipment means limiting the participation of a church member, while excommunication means removing all rights and privileges of membership. Ms. Kelly’s stake president had warned her in a letter in May that if she did not shut down the website, dissociate herself from it and repent, she faced excommunication for “openly, repeatedly and deliberately acting in public opposition to the church and its leaders after having been counseled not to do so.”

The letter said that she was “not required to change your thinking or the questions you may have in your own mind,” but that she must resolve her questions privately with her bishop.

“I’m just really, really, really heartbroken,” Ms. Kelly said.

She said she told the stake president and bishop, “What you’re asking me to do is to live inauthentically, and that’s not something I’m willing to do.”

The excommunication moves may have been foreshadowed last month in an open letter from Michael Otterson, managing director of the church’s public affairs office. He wrote that ordaining women would mean “radically redefining how Jesus structured His church,” and that church officials would not engage with those “who make nonnegotiable demands” that are “suggestive of apostasy.”

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