Targeted Activists

06.23.14

Excommunication With a Smile: Mormon Feminist Kicked Out of the Church

Kate Kelly, the leader of Ordain Women, was officially excommunicated. She has no plans to stop improving the lives of Mormon women.

Kate Kelly, one of the two high-profile Mormons threatened with excommunication, was officially forced out of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. An all-male panel tried Kelly in abstentia on Sunday and convicted her of apostasy for her desire to improve women’s rights in the Mormon community.

She and John Dehlin were both notified earlier this month that they were on the verge of being excommunicated.  They are the targets of the LDS Church’s most visible move to quash those who openly question doctrine in over 20 years. Kelly is a human rights attorney and the founder of Ordain Women, a movement for female Mormons to be ordained to the priesthood (a right the Mormon church reserved for men). Dehlin is a psychologist who runs “Mormon Stories,” a podcast series on issues affecting the church, and is an open advocate for gay and lesbian Mormons.

On June 8, Kelly was notified from the bishop of her former ward in Vienna, Virginia via an email shared with The Daily Beast that she is facing the “excommunication on the grounds of apostasy.” Not only had Kelly already moved to Utah, but she says her former church leaders put a "move restriction" on her record so she could not join a new congregation. Even more perplexing to Kelly was that her former bishop, Mark M. Harrison, had never expressed any concern to her in person during her time as a member. She was notified on May 22 that she was on “informal probation” by Scott M. Wheatley, the stake president (a role that akin to a regional director) of Oakton Virginia. But the threat of something as severe as excommunication was completely unexpected to her.

“I was shocked,” she told The Daily Beast. “While I was in that congregation that bishop never called me or took me aside. He never asked me a single question in person about my beliefs. I said goodbye. I gave him a hug. He said ‘good luck in your move.’”

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Kate Kelly founder of "Ordain Women" holds two tickets to the all male priesthood session at the 184th annual general conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints on April 5, 2014 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (George Frey/Getty)

Dehlin was similarly blindsided by the threat of excommunication. “There were no hints,” he told The Daily Beast. On June 9, he received the notice by mail that was dated June 7 and sent by a “relatively new” stake president. Dehlin says he actually had a close and good relationship with his former stake president. “It was very surprising after a year of meeting weekly with my stake president,” he said. “The conclusion was I was worthy to be a member in good standing.”

Dehlin said he has been investigated by LDS leaders at least three times in the past 10 years, but explained, “Every time I have complied willingly with my leaders. It was an incredibly heavy investment of time and energy, and again, I was exonerated.” When his bishop wanted him to go through yet another investigation in January, his wife asked him “to please not drag the family through this process again.”

In the excommunication warning notice, his stake president Bryan C. King cited this as evidence of Dehlin’s desire to separate himself from the LDS church. Dehlin said he had no desire to leave his ward nor the church. “We have continued to attend church over the past five months, our daughter currently is serving in a leadership capacity in the church, and both of our other daughters have spoken in church over the past year,” he said.

She stressed "Don’t leave. Stay, and make things better.”

The move against Kelly and Dehlin by LDS officials has sent shockwaves throughout the Mormon community. Not since the “purge” of six Mormon writers (five were ex-communicated, one was “disfellowshipped,”) in 1993 has the church rebuked activists so publicly. The September Six, as they came to be known, were targeted for being feminists and scholars. Though some later re-applied or rejoined, their punishment seemed to reflect a fear of unbridled intellectual inquiry within the LDS church.

That same anti-intellectual spirit is evident in the manner that the LDS church is choosing to proceed with Dehlin’s and Kelly’s potential excommunication, especially in the case against Kelly.

In the June 8 email, Kelly was told that a disciplinary council is scheduled of June 22 at her former ward in Virginia, even though she now lives across the country in Utah. “I contacted the person who oversees my stake president, Donald L. Hallstrom,” she said. “I asked him at a bare minimum to convene the council where I live, and he said he can’t help me. As an attorney, it’s a violation of due process, and it highlights that the system is unfair.”

Kelly was unable to attend the trial Sunday, but held a rally with her supporters in Utah, instead. "The court isn’t really about listening to what I’ve had to say," she said shortly after she was threatened with excommunication. "It’s about punishing me. If it was about listening to what I had to say, they had ample opportunity to listen to me when I lived in the congregation.”

It seemed fitting that her trial not only occurred in her absence, but that her future as a Mormon was decided by a group of men. Proving her point that women are treated disproportionately worse in the church, Dehlin's fate will be decided June 29 in a meeting with his stake president.

Kelly knew she was up against gender-biased odds. She explained that as a woman in the LDS church, only thee people—a local bishop and his two council members—are needed to approve of excommunication. If you are a man, and therefore a priesthood holder, it takes a council of 15 men to agree on excommunication. In that situation. “there is much less of a chance for individual bias,” she said. “For me, it’s an individual leader who is making a decision about my eternal salvation.”

Dehlin believed the decision to threaten him and Kelly with excommunication came from high within the LDS Church. “I think it came from the highest levels of leadership,” he said. “I’m speculating, but I’ve heard from friends that members of the Quorum of 12 [the second-highest governing body in the LDS Church] have been expressing concerns about my podcasts in stake president training. I think it is an orchestrated endeavor.”

The LDS Church's expulsion efforts speak to the intellectual crisis the Mormon community is currently facing. Church spokeswoman Ally Isom said, "In the Church, we want everyone to feel welcome, safe and valued, and of course, there is room to ask questions. But how we ask is just as important as what we ask. We should not try to dictate to God what is right for his Church."

“Kate Kelly and I have been trying hard to be part of the solution by talking openly about difficult issues within the faith with the intent to help people struggling,” Dehlin said. “I’m worried this an incident of the church shooting the messenger because they don’t know how to deal with the problems. I think this is an act of desperation.”

The church’s intent to silence discussion was clear in Kelly’s notification regarding her informal probation states:

It is important that you understand that you are not required to change your thinking or the question you may have in your own mind regarding the ordination of women, but you need to make it a private matter.

The letter also ordered her to “take down www.ordainwomen.org and disassociat[e] yourself from Ordain Women.” In other words, Kelly said, “I don’t have to change my mind. I just have to shut my mouth.”

The Ordain Women website posted some of Harrison's email to Kelly informing her of her excommunication. In it, he says that, "In order to be considered for readmission to the Church, you will need to demonstrate over a period of time that you have stopped teachings and actions that undermine the Church, its leaders, and the doctrine of the priesthood... You must stop trying to gain a following for yourself or your cause and taking actions that could lead others away from the Church.”

Before her excomunication was official, Kelly already committed herself to working towards improving the community.  “This hasn’t made me question my desire to work within the faith,” she said. “I’m working for nieces, my friends, the young women who have no opportunity to leave the church. As an adult, I could walk away. As a 12-year-old girl, you don’t have that opportunity. It’s not just about me and now. It’s about creating better place for all women in the church.”

Following the news of her excommunication, Kelly has stood by her words. “The decision to force me outside my congregation and community is exceptionally painful," she said in a statement on Ordain Women. However, she stressed "Don’t leave. Stay, and make things better.”