Mormon feminist, returned missionary and temple-attending member Kate Kelly cherishes her church — so much so that she desires to play an even bigger role in it.
Now Kelly may lose her place in the faith altogether.
The founder of the Ordain Women movement, which has been asking LDS leaders to let women join Mormonism’s all-male priesthood, has been threatened with excommunication.
Utahn John Dehlin, who created a popular website and podcast series called “Mormon Stories,” which explores historical and social issues such as gay rights, received a similar summons this week.
These two disciplinary notices have sent a horrified ripple through the LDS feminist, online and blogger communities.
“Over the past decade, a whole generation of Mormons has held out the hope that the religion we love can become more diverse and welcoming and meet its 21st-century challenges with openness and confidence,” said Joanna Brooks, an LDS writer and professor of comparative literature at San Diego State University. “Convening a disciplinary court because a believing Mormon woman asked hard questions out loud will only compound those challenges.”
Wednesday’s news, Brooks said, “is breaking a lot of hearts among the Mormon people.”
These allegations of apostasy come at a time when the LDS Church has seemed to be more open, more diverse and more inclusive. It has published essays outlining complicated episodes in its history, has softened language on gay members — same-sex attraction is not a sin, the church now teaches, only acting on it is — and has made strides toward equality for women in a male-dominated faith.
Kelly, a human-rights attorney who until recently lived in Vienna, Va., received an email Monday from Mark Harrison, her Mormon bishop, inviting her to attend a June 22 “disciplinary council” to consider “disfellowshipment or excommunication, on the grounds of apostasy.”
Kelly, who is staying in Utah until she moves to Kenya shortly with her husband, said Wednesday she was “totally, totally floored” by the email. “It is a deep devastation and sorrow.”
For a devout Mormon such as Kelly, excommunication, or loss of church membership, “is a kind of spiritual death,” she said. “It means that your ordinances are moot and that you are being forcibly evicted from your eternal family.”
Since founding Ordain Women more than a year ago, Kelly said she has always informed her local LDS leaders about the group’s actions.
Harrison never talked to her about Ordain Women at all, Kelly said, but during a May 5 meeting with her LDS stake president, Scott Wheatley, she was placed on “informal probation” for “activities relating to Ordain Women, for openly, repeatedly and deliberately acting in public opposition to the church and its leaders after having been counseled not to do so, for continuing to teach as doctrine information that is not doctrine after having been counseled regarding the doctrine of the priesthood and for leading others to do the same.”
In the letter, Wheatley said that Kelly’s probation meant she could not “partake of the sacrament, [communion], hold a church calling, give a talk, offer a public prayer, or participate in the sustaining of church officers.”
To regain full membership, Wheatley wrote, the feminist must take down the Ordain Women website, break ties with the group, and “stop trying to gain a following for yourself or your cause and lead others away from the church.”
Kelly replied that she couldn’t do that and be “authentic,” and because she no longer lives in Virginia, will not be attending the disciplinary council, which is scheduled to take place in the same Mormon stake where feminist Sonia Johnson was excommunicated in 1979.
LDS Church spokeswoman Kristen Howey disputes the idea that any Mormons would be targeted for asking questions.
“The church is a family made up of millions of individuals with diverse backgrounds and opinions,” Howey said in a statement. “There is room for questions and we welcome sincere conversations. We hope those seeking answers will find them and happiness through the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
But when “members’ actions contradict church doctrine and lead others astray,” she said, they “in effect choose to take themselves out of the church by actively teaching and publicly attempting to change doctrine to comply with their personal beliefs.”
Such moves sadden “leaders and fellow members,” Howey wrote. “In these rare cases, 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.”
A local LDS leader could presume Ordain Women’s efforts represent false doctrine, given previous public statements from church headquarters.
LDS public-relations personnel have been ratcheting up the anti-Ordain Women language since early spring, when the group asked for the second time for tickets to the all-male priesthood session of April General Conference.
At that time, church spokeswoman Jessica Moody wrote that “ordination of women to the priesthood is a matter of doctrine that is contrary to the Lord’s revealed organization for his church.”
Moody also said the group would not be getting tickets and requested that participants not enter the faith’s Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City to seek standby passes, but rather congregate outside the square’s gates, where critics and protesters typically stand. Ordain Women defied that request and marched politely to the Tabernacle to ask, one by one, for entrance. The women were rebuffed.
Public Affairs officials continued their characterization of Ordain Women as “outsiders,” lumping them with “activist groups whose demands are inconsistent with church teachings and doctrines.”
In late May, Michael Otterson, managing director of public affairs, alluded to Ordain Women (though the group was not named) and stated that its aims were “divisive” and “suggestive of apostasy.”
Dehlin’s case is somewhat different.
The Cache County researcher and blogger, who describes himself as a churchgoer with serious doubts about LDS history and teachings, has been threatened with disciplinary action before.
In a June 7 letter, his local LDS leader asked whether Dehlin, who is married and has four children, wanted to resign his membership.
“If you choose not to have your name removed [from church rolls],” wrote North Logan Stake President Bryan C. King, “then I think we are to the point where I should convene a formal disciplinary council on your behalf for apostasy.”
That hearing is to take place by June 18.
“I feel really sad, and sometimes scared,” Dehlin said, “because I love the church and its people. I value my membership — even though I struggle with issues.”
Besides addressing historical questions, Dehlin has done groundbreaking research on gay and lesbian Mormons and any discipline “will have an impact on ongoing conversations between the church and its LGBT members,” said Kendall Wilcox, a leader in Mormons Building Bridges.
Gay Mormons have already begun asking, Wilcox said, “if there is not enough room in the church for John Dehlin, then clearly there is not enough room for me.”
Even the Bridges’ board spent time Wednesday wondering if its goal — to heal strained relations between the LDS and LGBT communities while taking no position on hot-button issues such as same-sex marriage — “is out of bounds.”
“We are clear that everything we’ve done is because of our faith,” Wilcox said, “not in spite of it.”
Wednesday’s developments also brought a lot of soul-searching in other corners of the Mormon universe — and echoes from the past.
In 1993, six feminists and historians were punished for apostasy. They became known as the “September Six,” and the disciplinary measures sent a chilling message to the entire Mormon intellectual community.
“It seems to me that excommunication is a 19th-century answer to Mormonism’s 21st-century challenges,” Brooks said, “especially challenges pertaining to the status of women and LGBT Mormons.”
The Southern California scholar hopes these disciplinary councils “conclude differently than the councils convened in September 1993. The purge of the September Six has haunted far too many Mormons. This is an opportunity to do it differently and lay those ghosts to rest.”
Excommunication, the most severe penalty, is not a fait accompli. Local leaders can choose to take no action or settle on a lesser sanction such as disfellowshipment, depriving members of certain privileges, including temple entry.
This “really does throw us back into some dark times,” said Kristine Haglund, editor of “Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.” “I’m not sure how the impact will be different because of social media, but my hunch is that a lot more people will be aware of and alienated by the church’s actions than in 1993.”
Ordain Women already has 350 profiles of women and men who favor female ordination on its website and Dehlin’s “Mormon Stories” has more than 5,000 listeners.
“It will have a polarizing effect,” Haglund said. “Moderates will either be scared into silence or scared and hurt into leaving church activity.”
Jana Riess, a Mormon convert and feminist who coincidentally joined the LDS Church about the time of the September Six purge, noted that whatever happens with the latest cases, “there will always be Mormons who are unafraid to raise our voices and speak the truth in love, even if the truth may be difficult to hear.”
These actions, she said, may actually “galvanize the people who are in the middle.”
Steve Evans, a Utah attorney and blogger at By Common Consent, believes these actions are bad for all Mormons.
“I don’t know the details of their situations — but as someone who likes to ask questions and study our history, I can’t help but feel nervous,” Evans said. “We’re a strong enough people with a religion robust enough to withstand scrutiny, exploration and maybe even dissent.”
It’s possible, he said, that disciplinary action will “fuel the activism that the church seems to fear.”
If the Mormon faithful are divided, Evans said, “we are all diminished.”