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Conservative Mormons, like progressives, in church cross hairs

Published June 21, 2014 1:05 pm

More members are facing scrutiny for online comments and activism.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The LDS Church apparently is cracking down on outspoken conservatives as well as progressives.

Two men have been excommunicated since February and at least three more are being questioned by their local lay leaders, in part because they are sympathetic to the views of Denver Snuffer, a Utah lawyer excommunicated last year for teaching that the church has strayed from true doctrine.

Meanwhile, two more women affiliated with Ordain Women say they've been disciplined. A disciplinary council for the group's founder, Kate Kelly, is scheduled for Sunday in Virginia, where Kelly formerly lived.

Another officer of the group, Hannah Wheelwright, reported Thursday that she has been placed on informal probation, and a central Virginia woman who posted a profile on the Ordain Women website said she resigned this month rather than submit to a disciplinary council.

Whether the upswing in reports of church discipline signifies a clampdown by top Mormon leaders is unclear.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints insists that local leaders — bishops and stake (regional) presidents — decide who and when to discipline, all with the motivation to restore the member to full participation in the faith.

"There is no effort to tell local leaders to keep members from blogging or discussing questions online," church spokeswoman Jessica Moody said Thursday in an emailed statement. "On the contrary, church leaders have encouraged civil online dialogue, and recognize that today it's how we communicate and discuss ideas with one another."

Moreover, she said, it's up to a local lay leader to apply church principles in shepherding his congregants. "If he becomes troubled by a member's actions, he can rely on his own spiritual insights, personal prayer, guidance from handbooks and his training to determine how best to address the member's circumstances." (See accompanying statement.)

Kelly said that about a dozen women associated with Ordain Women — out of 400 members with profiles on the group's website — have been released from church assignments or had their temple recommends revoked or not renewed.

"The increasingly harsh rhetoric is making local leaders feel like they are obliged [to take action]," Kelly said Thursday.

Wheelwright — chairwoman of long-term strategy for Ordain Women, which is seeking female admission into the all-male Mormon priesthood — said she suspects it is a matter of local church leaders acting on statements from higher-ups rather than an orchestrated attempt to root out dissent.

"There are specific statements from up top, carefully worded so that the letter-of-the-law bishops carry them out," Wheelwright said. "It's completely leadership roulette. It depends on who your local leaders are and whether they care whether you differ in your views."

Wheelwright hopes the next spin of the wheel in her case will be in her favor.

The recent Brigham Young University graduate was called in by her former stake president in Provo shortly after she moved out of his stake and before she moved to Washington, D.C., last month. Wheelwright said he grilled her on articles she did not write but which were posted on the Young Mormon Feminists blog she created.

It wasn't until she asked her new bishop in Washington about the conditions of her informal probation that she learned she is not able to speak at services, hold church callings or take the sacrament (communion).

Wheelwright does not expect her case to end up in a disciplinary council.

"I trust the bishop to be fair," she said. "He is a thoughtful and cautious man, and he really just wants to listen and understand."

But Rock Waterman, a retired innkeeper near Sacramento, Calif., expects to receive a letter scheduling a disciplinary hearing after two meetings with his bishop.

He believes that "one or two rogue apostles" are behind the crackdown. "It's not an institutional pogrom."

In his case, Waterman asserts that an area seventy — a layer of LDS leadership above stakes (groups of congregations) — told his bishop to take action because Waterman's blog, Pure Mormonism, challenges as nondoctrinal common church practices involving tithing and temple marriage. "My poor bishop. He hasn't even read my blog. He told me he was just relaying a message."

"I'm not afraid of this process," Waterman said. "They can boot me out of their corporation, but ... I'm a member of the Lord's church unless I've committed an egregious sin."

Jan Shipps, a retired American religion scholar in Indiana and an expert on Mormonism, said she's not surprised by the spate of disciplinary actions.

"The fact they are going in both directions [against conservatives and progressives]," Shipps said, "makes me think the church is finally coming to grips with the fact the Internet is changing the situation."

Here are others Mormons disciplined in recent months or facing church censure:

• Will Carter of Indio, Calif., was excommunicated in April after his blog, In 200 Words or Less, and conversations with fellow Mormons led his bishop to accuse him of apostasy. Carter said in an interview that he openly wondered how the church could better help those whose testimonies were rocked by information found on the internet and he openly spoke about one of Snuffer's books, which he found "positively inspiring and truth-filled." His bishop's idea, he said, "was for me to shut up, to not tell anybody."

• Brent Larsen of Utah County wrote on the blog LDSFreedomForum.com that he was excommunicated in February for claiming Snuffer is a prophet in the way that all faithful members can receive prophecy and for espousing other views popularized by Snuffer.

• Tim Malone of Ventura, Calif., said he has met four times with his LDS bishop. He said they will meet again Tuesday, along with his stake president, for counseling over his lay leaders' concerns about his blog, latterdaycommentary.com. Malone said he already gave up his temple recommend last winter because he could not affirm that he does not sympathize with apostates — Snuffer in particular. "I want to be respectful and … do all I can to follow their direction, but I just feel strongly I'm doing something good with this blog. I'm not going to be silenced."

• Kate Kelly has said her parents had their temple recommends yanked after they refused to take down their profiles from the Ordain Women website. Kelly, who is living in Provo with her parents before she and her husband move to Kenya, said her mother also was removed from her calling in the LDS women's Relief Society.

• Dana, a Virginia woman who asked that her last name not be used because her family remains in the church, said her bishop began requesting a meeting in May, shortly after she posted a profile on Ordain Women's website. She also anonymously posted criticisms of the church on the PostMormon.org website. Rather than face a disciplinary council, she said, she, her husband and two children resigned their Mormon memberships this month.

• Kevin Kloosterman, a former LDS bishop in Illinois whose temple recommend was denied last winter because of his LGBT activism, said a crackdown appears underway, even if he doesn't know the source. "I've noticed a change in tone over the last six to eight months," he said, in statements from some church leaders and spokesmen.

• Cache County resident John Dehlin, who created a popular website and podcast series called "Mormon Stories," is scheduled to meet June 29 with his stake president.

kmoulton@sltrib.com

Twitter: @KristenMoulton