By the thousands, onetime Latter-day Saints have turned to an immigration lawyer in Salt Lake City for help. They want to resign their church membership without having to interact with a bishop or any other lay leader.

Mark Naugle, largely through Reddit, has cultivated a unique and free service through his QuitMormon website.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has largely complied with the more than 40,000 legal letters Naugle has sent its way since late 2015, but it recently added a new restriction amid some growing frustration.

Those who use his service to resign their membership must now provide a notarized letter.

The reason? An attorney for the church says Naugle and QuitMormon.com have sent too many fraudulent requests, including one for Thomas S. Monson, the late church president.

“In other cases, signatures have been forged and the names of minors have been fraudulently removed without the knowledge and authorization of parents/legal guardians,” attorney Daniel McConkie, with the Salt Lake City law firm Kirton McConkie, wrote to Naugle in a June 27 letter. In the letter, McConkie says the church has received “many fraudulent requests” but doesn’t put a number on it. He did write that dozens were submitted for people who were not members or who had already had their records removed.

He added: “The problem is that your automated, largely impersonal system does not truly screen for fraudulent or erroneous submissions.”

Naugle concedes the Monson mistake but said he caught it in February 2018 and notified the church promptly. As for any sort of widespread fraud, he says neither the church nor its attorneys have brought any cases to his attention. He believes the letter isn’t really about fraud.

“It is a pretty transparent way to throw sand in our gears and slow us down again,” he said.

McConkie also complained that, in hundreds of cases, Naugle sent multiple requests for the same person.

Naugle says that’s true.

“That’s because they didn’t get back to me.”

Naugle’s persistence isn’t going to end. He says McConkie should expect more resignation requests soon, after he adapts his website in the next few weeks to start accepting notarized letters.

The church repeatedly has spelled out that there are other ways people intent on resigning can do so. They can talk to their bishop “who will ensure the person understands what this will mean for their membership,” said church spokesman Daniel Woodruff. Or they can send a notarized letter directly to the Office of the First Presidency, the faith’s governing body.

Beyond that, they can hire a lawyer. The church promises that these legal requests will be “promptly processed,” even more so if “an attorney who, because of ethical obligations, will verify the identity and desire of the individual,” said Woodruff, obviously trying to draw a distinction between Naugle’s service and the work of other lawyers.

“In discussing this issue, it is important to note that every person is valued and loved. They are our brothers and sisters, colleagues and friends,” Woodruff said. “Each makes their own decisions about their participation and church membership. Regardless of their choice, we love them and wish them well and hope they will find the support and answers they seek.”

How QuitMormon came to be

Naugle, now 34, didn’t set out to be the main source of resignation requests. QuitMormon was something he fell into, and yet it all stems from his own personal experience.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mark Naugle is an immigration attorney who created QuitMormon.com, a free service. The LDS Church has tightened rules on people using QuitMormon to resign their membership.
Buy this image

His whole family — including his mom, dad and brother — resigned church memberships when he was 15 years old, after his father’s internet research led all of them to believe the church was based on falsehoods.

In the days that followed, people from his ward, or congregation, visited frequently, urging them to return, saying they were sinners and that they just gave up their eternal lives. Naugle remembers times when his family members hid in their house when ward members would approach.

He deadpanned, “It wasn’t a great experience.”

Naugle went on to law school at the University of Utah, graduating in 2009. He sent a few resignation letters for family and friends after that, and then he went on the r/exmormon page on Reddit and offered his services. He got a few hundred responses.

In 2015, the church implemented a new policy identifying members in same-sex relationships as apostates and saying their children could not be baptized. It caused an uproar within the church and in the ex-Mormon community. He re-upped his offer on Reddit.

“And it just exploded,” he said.

He started getting thousands of requests, many from Utah but also from throughout the country and beyond. What started as individualized letters became standardized. Volunteers helped him build his website and create an automated process that he turned into a nonprofit organization. He doesn’t charge people, but he does accept donations and sells coffee mugs.

For the next three years, he sent big batches of resignation letters and got a list of those the church processed every Friday.

Among those who filed were angry former Latter-day Saints who stopped going to church years ago and those who were triggered by an action, whether it was the church policy involving gay children, which has since been rescinded, or the high-profile excommunication of Kate Kelly, who sought the priesthood for women.

That latter group includes Ashley Thalman, an Ogden photographer.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ashley Thalman, an Ogden photographer who runs Ultraviolet Studios, resigned her membership in 2017 from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints using QuitMormon.
Buy this image

Thalman was living a pretty straightforward Latter-day Saint life. She grew up in the church, served a mission in Russia and loved it. She got married in the temple and had two children. She held a number of callings and then, around 2011, she became a Gospel Doctrine teacher. The class included a trans woman and a gay man and an outspoken feminist. Her plan was to meet them where they were and tackle issues head-on.

It was the start of her own feminist awakening. She stood with Kelly, seeing no reason why women shouldn’t be priesthood holders, and it led her down a path that ended at QuitMormon in early 2017.

“My brain expanded and it was like, ‘I think everyone can have some kind of connection to God on their own,’" she said. “'Why do we need bishops then? Why do we need the temple? Why do we need the priesthood? Why do we need any of it.'”

When she moved, she went to her new ward once and then stopped going to church altogether.

“To say my transition out of Mormonism wrecked me would be kind of an understatement,” Thalman said. “It was incredibly difficult. It was like, ‘What is the point of living anymore.'"

Over time, she said, she started to “feel more free, more like myself. I had more capacity for empathy and love.” And a strong desire to have no connection with the church.

When she was younger, she’d take note of the new membership numbers announced by church leaders at the General Conference each April. The rising total was a sign of the faith’s unending expansion.

She didn’t want her name to be among that total any longer. She went to QuitMormon.com, and saw the stats that Naugle updates here and there. “I wanted to be part of those numbers. … I made my peace with it, and I didn’t want to be associated with a church that doesn’t want to represent my values.”

Thalman filled out the forms, and a few weeks later received confirmation that she was Mormon no more.

Why use QuitMormon? Why not just go directly to the church with her resignation request? Thalman said: “I didn’t feel like I owed the bishop or anyone else an explanation.”

Naugle said that Thalman’s experience is similar to that of many of his clients.

The church, through Woodruff, promises that “no ecclesiastical proceeding is required” and that any interactions with the resigning member “would be based on their desires.”

Naugle said that isn’t the lived experience of some former Latter-day Saints.

“As it stands, people see a value in my service because they don’t have to go talk to their bishop, don’t have to go to church court or face excommunication,” he said. “The [women’s] Relief Society presidency doesn’t show up at their door, and they can quietly resign without a hassle.”

St. George resident Sharrin Fuller said she sent four resignation letters over a span of eight years — the first, in 2001, to her bishop. Three others went to church headquarters. She never received a response. And every time she moved, which was frequently for work, her now estranged father would make sure her membership records were transferred and there’d be a knock at her door.

Sometimes it would be a quick interaction in which she’d say she had no interest, and they’d leave her alone, but, in 2007, she says a stake president got past her gate and made it to her front porch on a secluded property in the San Diego area. He was insistent and demanding. He told her that she wouldn’t be resigning her membership and that he expected her to be in church that Sunday.

Fuller stopped attending in 1999 after the temple ceremonies stunned her.

“Some of the rituals that they do freaked me out,” she said, “Made me feel like we were in a cult.”

She acknowledges being an unquestioning member before that, attending church, but not studying the faith, its tenets or practices. Her dad, though, was devout and angry that she had stepped away. She believes he urged the stake president to visit her in California. The next time she moved, she signed up for a P.O. Box and stopped giving her parents her address.

“Now they leave me alone,” Fuller said.

She eventually moved back to Utah and being in a Latter-day Saint dominated culture brought back unresolved issues. She heard about QuitMormon on Facebook, filled out the online form in 2017 and received her confirmation six weeks later. As a thank you, she provides free accounting services to Naugle’s nonprofit.

“It was a relief."

The church’s concerns

Like Fuller, Thalman described her resignation process through QuitMormon as seamless, and Naugle said his interactions with the church membership department were professional and straightforward.

The only point of contention was a growing concern from Naugle and his clients that the names of unbaptized children remained somewhere in the church system since ward members would continue to seek them out, even though their parents had resigned their memberships. Woodruff said those children have “canceled records” that should not be accessible to lay leaders, though they could be connected to another family member who has retained his or her membership.

In November 2018, Naugle received his first letter from Daniel McConkie, a top attorney with Kirton McConkie, which represents the church. The attorney wrote that Naugle should no longer send letters to the membership department; instead, they should all go through the law firm. McConkie also complained that some of the letters appeared to be fraudulent, writing that Naugle needed to verify the identity of his clients and suggested that he do that using their driver licenses.

Naugle responded in January, saying he’d comply. He set up a new part of his website where clients could upload a picture of their license for him to review. Naugle said he has checked every submission since then.

The second letter came in late June. Woodruff said church authorities had created “a specialized process” just for QuitMormon.com letters and that is “now being discontinued because of abuses of that process.”

Naugle and Thalman said the notarized letter requirement is a hassle that could lead a person who wants to leave the church to face an awkward conversation with a notary, a moment of potential shame. He’s trying to avoid that, having posted a request on Reddit for notaries willing to provide their services for free. So far, he has a list of 55 and hopes to have his revamped system available in early August.

This change is less convenient for his clients but will save Naugle time. He no longer needs to verify the person’s identity against a driver license.

Once he gets the online form in place, Naugle says he’ll send McConkie dozens — likely hundreds — of notarized letters, and he expects the church to promptly respond.

The impact of QuitMormon on membership

Matt Martinich, an independent Colorado-based researcher who focuses on Latter-day Saint membership and congregations, believes there has been an uptick in resignations in recent years. But he says that’s hard to quantify because those numbers are obscured by other reasons a person’s membership ends, such as death and excommunication.

“What QuitMormon has done is it has really kind of streamlined it for a lot of people who have wanted to leave,” he said, noting that roughly half those resignations have come from Utah, according to numbers Naugle has posted on his website.

That means Utah’s resignations are overrepresented when compared to the church’s membership in the United States and worldwide. If all resignations were spread out evenly, QuitMormon should get less than a third of its requests from within the state.

But the overrepresentation makes sense to Martinich. People who are disaffected are more likely to resign their memberships in a place where the church has an outsized cultural influence. Former members in a place where the church holds little sway may not think about it as much.

“That is much more of a Utah phenomenon,” he said.

While each resignation is a big deal in the life of that person, the departures don’t move the needle a whole lot for a church that counts 16.3 million members.

“Really, these resignations are a drop in the bucket in terms of how they impact membership numbers as a whole,” Martinich said.

Naugle said he has no idea what the church’s membership is, and since resigning his membership, he has not tried to engage in the latest issues surrounding his former faith. Outside of his occasional post about QuitMormon, he’s not on Reddit.

“I moved on with my life for a reason. I don’t want to be neck deep in it anymore," he said. “Outside of what I do, I try to live my life as separate from the church, its people and its thoughts as possible.”

And how long does he plan to volunteer his time helping people resign their membership? Indefinitely.

Correction: 8:50 a.m., Aug. 4 • An earlier version of this story misstated the year that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints imposed a policy identifying members in same-sex relationships as apostates and saying their children could not be baptized. That 2015 policy has since been rescinded.