Jana Riess: Did Mormonism’s anti-LGBTQ policy cause more people to leave the LDS Church?

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) Protester holds a rainbow flag during a mass resignation rally near Temple Square in Salt Lake City in 2015.

There was a whole lot going on last week, what with six-figure COVID-19 cases and a contested presidential election in the United States. But amid the tumult, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints quietly passed a milestone, the kind you won’t see trumpeted on the faith’s website or commemorated in a news release: Five years ago, in early November 2015, the church banned children of same-sex couples from being baptized or formally blessed.

The decision was an aggressive overreaction to the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States several months earlier. As such, the “policy of exclusion” — which would come to be known in some circles as simply “the POX” or “the ban” — made national headlines. “New policy on gay couples and their children roils Mormon Church,” read The New York Times.

The move was sharply criticized.

Bigotry toward children was not a good look for us.

In April 2019, the policy was reversed, with children of same-sex couples no longer being singled out for exclusion from important rituals. At that time, the church also reversed a policy that required a disciplinary council to decide the fate of gay members who were in a same-sex marriage, even while reiterating the church’s general stance against same-sex marriage.

Like many, I complained when these bans were put in place in 2015 and rejoiced when they were rescinded 3 1/2 years later. My joy was dampened, however, by the knowledge that the change came too late for some people.

I want to be clear about scope here. I’ve written before to urge caution about broad claims of a “mass exodus” of members specifically because of the 2015 policy. There are no reliable numbers about how many people resigned from the church in the immediate wake of the 2015 ban, despite resignation rallies that attracted thousands of attendees.

As well, there is evidence that many Latter-day Saints who felt negatively about the policy also had reservations about other church teachings, meaning that it didn’t function as a lone catalyst that dramatically and single-handedly fueled their exit out of the church.

Rather, it worked in concert with other issues and was often the final straw for people whose frustrations had been building for some time.

Over the past year, I have been interviewing former church members for a sequel to “The Next Mormons” that my co-author Benjamin Knoll and I are working on. While the first book primarily focused on data and oral histories from church members who are still involved and mostly believing, this one traces the patterns of belief and behavior among those who have left.

It has been a fascinating project that has challenged some of my ideas about religious disaffection — and made me cautious of the notion that any single rationale can explain everything. Religion is complicated, and people even more so.

Having said that, LGBTQ issues in general and “the ban” in particular have come up often in interviews.

“What I left over was misogyny and the 2015 LGBT policy,” said William, who was in his mid-40s at the time. “I couldn’t abide it anymore. I told my wife, ‘I’ve got to take my name off. I can’t be a part of this anymore.’ She was very understanding. She is still on the records, but she doesn’t really consider herself a member anymore.”

By the time the policy was announced in November 2015, William had not attended sacrament meeting regularly for six months, preferring to try the “amazing spiritual experiences” and “wonderful sermons” he found at other churches.

So the LGBTQ policy, while instrumental in finally getting him to remove his name from the records, was not the initial stimulus for losing his faith. He’s now a fulfilled member of another church and is working on a master’s degree in theology.

The 2015 policy was also a breaking point for Julie, who is 63 and has a gay son who, she said, was the “most spiritual” of all her five children and stepchildren, going to the temple repeatedly and reading his scriptures every day. So “when the policy came out and it listed him as an apostate, I thought, ‘No way. If he’s an apostate,” she told me, “there’s something wrong with this church.’”

But the policy wasn’t the only factor. One of her daughters was also leaving the church around that time and said she felt like she had never had a real testimony. Another son was reading church history and decided to leave the church over contradictions he discovered. “And then one day a neighbor came over and said that she was having trouble with the church.”

This was all coming at once. Julie herself had major misgivings about polygamy and discovered things about Brigham Young that she found abhorrent.

“The policy made me research the church,” she summarized. “It didn’t necessarily make me leave.”

With Julie and William, confronting the 2015 LGBTQ policy was an important stage in the process of leaving Mormonism — for Julie, a crucial first step out the door, and for William, a final breaking point that cemented a decision he had mostly already made.

So in answer to the question in the headline, I would say yes: For many people who have left the church, the 2015 LGBTQ policy was an important grievance.

But we do people a disservice when we imagine that it was the only reason they left and that without it, they would still be members. In my interviews, I haven’t yet met anyone who was so impressed by the policy’s 2019 reversal that they decided to return to church activity.

Damage was done. Their trust was broken. And despite the church’s wise and welcome decision to reverse the policy, the fallout of 2015 may be felt for years to come.

Editor’s note The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.