Earlier this month, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—the Mormon church—changed how homosexual families will be treated within the church. LDS leaders made two changes to the church’s first handbook, a guide for local leaders on official church policy: First, gay members of the church who choose to marry will now be considered apostates; second, children raised by gay parents won’t be recognized by the church. In short, gay Mormon families have been essentially banned from the church.
Here's the revisions to the handbook pertaining to families headed by gay couples, as obtained by the Liberty Lineup radio show:
The decision was released to bishops of individual wards in a letter, and clarified for the general public a few days later. The members of the church’s first presidency, who head the church in partnership, wrote that children of gay couples who have already been baptized and are being raised within the church won’t be excommunicated. They also confirmed that “adults who choose to enter into a same-gender marriage or similar relationship commit sin.”
Church elder M. Russell Ballard explains that excommunication, which the church says is rare, is the most extreme of a number of disciplinary actions taken by the church against certain individuals. Ballard writes that once church leaders have brought a member before an official disciplinary council—as they now must, if a Mormon becomes legally wed to someone of the same sex—there are a number of possible outcomes: no action, formal probation, disfellowshipment, or excommunication. In Ballard's words:
Formal probation is a temporary state of discipline… Disfellowshipment is usually temporary, though not necessarily brief. Disfellowshipped persons retain membership in the Church… Excommunication is the most severe judgment a Church disciplinary council can take. Excommunicated persons are no longer members of the Church.
So a gay Mormon who gets married stands the risk of being excommunicated. Ballard adds, however, that even excommunication can be reversed. "Church disciplinary action is not intended to be the end of the process—rather, it is designed to be the beginning of an opportunity to return to full fellowship and to the full blessings of the Church," but only if those who've been excommunicated amend the action that led to dismissal in the first place.
Indeed, being excommunicated from the church means being formally excluded from several of the church's core functions. Mette Ivie Harrison, who is Mormon, explained what's at stake in a Huffington Post blog:
If someone is excommunicated from the Mormon church, all the saving ordinances that have been done for them are erased. That means that you are no longer considered baptized, sealed to family members in the temple, or ordained to the priesthood (if a man). But unlike someone who is not a member of the church, you are also asked not to speak in church (if you choose to continue to attend), not to take the Sacrament (communion) in weekly church meetings, and are not allowed to hold a calling. If you have been through the temple, you are asked to stop wearing your temple garments (which are reminders of temple covenants). You are no longer allowed to pay tithing or give any offerings to the church (at least not directly).
So while excommunication does not mean total isolation from the church, it does mean ceasing to be an active participant. An excommunicated Mormon can be a spectator, but will no longer be allowed to behave as a true member of the church.
The church was not all that welcoming to gay members prior to this ruling; sexual relations among same-sex couples were always considered a sin. But for a time, it seemed that the church might be inching toward accepting its gay members more wholeheartedly. Back in March, the church joined LGBT groups in supporting an anti-discrimination bill.
So for some, the decision signified a backslide on the part of the church’s leadership—a slap in the face for those who were holding out for a kinder church. Congregates explained why they were leaving in passionate blogs and letters. "It is impossible for me to be a part of a religion that would attack its own members and punish them by denying their children involvement in the church," former member Kate Kendell wrote, adding, "I can’t help but think how crushing this news is to everyone who had begun to believe that they could both love their church and love themselves or their LGBT family."
Thousands of Mormons like Kendell have been abandoning the church. Mark Naugle, a lawyer in Utah who is helping those who want to leave the church get through the necessary paperwork to formally disconnect, told NBC News that 1,700 people have reached out to him for help.
But not all gay Mormons are abandoning their faith. Some are sticking with the church, despite the difficulties. For them, the experience is the latest in a long line of challenges posed by the church’s leadership, one they see as a test of faith, and an opportunity to fight for the institution they believe in.
Todd Richardson, 31, an out gay man who belongs to a ward in New York City, said the policy, “broke my heart,” adding, “this hit me harder than any other one thing.” Richardson said his community is accepting, but that “the church has never been affirming by any means.” The current situation has proven difficult for him: He plans to get married and start a family, and the church’s decision has made it clear how hard that will be. He told me that this is the first time he’s ever really questioned leaving the church.
But Richardson is choosing to see the church’s decision as a hurdle, rather than an exit point. He prayed on what to do, he told me, and said he “got this profound feeling that this is a hard thing, and for whatever reason that it’s happened it’s been allowed to happen. And the savior is asking me if I'm going to walk way… and I decided that I’m not going to.”
Christian Harrison, who lives in Salt Lake City, also described a deep connection with his faith. Harrison told me that he grew up within the church, and that it’s been far from easy. “I was called an abomination growing up,” he told me over the phone. “I’m used to having people that I revere as men of God hurt my feelings.” But these interactions with clergy didn’t prevent him from having "a lifetime worth of spiritual experiences that are too sacred to share." These experiences, he said, have "knit my soul to this church.”
For Harrison, the misguided opinions of LDS leaders aren’t reason enough to stop doing the spiritual—and charitable—work of the Mormon church. That work includes fighting for change from within the LDS. He’s concerned that if people abandon the church in protest at this time, only its most callous members will remain. “When the tender hearted all leave, where does that leave us? Where are we as a faith if we scare off everyone that is sensitive to the needs of our minority groups and those that are vulnerable?”
Those I spoke to all said they felt accepted within their wards. For them, the problem lies with an archaic leadership, whom they fear will push more open-minded Mormons to a conservative extreme.
This is a concern for Nicholas Einbender. He and his partner, Spencer Mickelson, are an out gay couple who belong to a ward in Hawaii. Einbender describes a supportive congregation that both accepts them and turns to them when they have questions. For him, the issue is one of exposure and the opportunity to dispel stereotypes perhaps harbored by mainstream Mormons—namely, that gay Mormons ignore the church's rules, and the baffling notion that they don’t really want to be involved, anyway.
Einbender thinks more openly gay couples and families within the church should show their sheltered peers that there’s no reason to keep them out. And he’s frustrated, because "the church is shielding people from what the new normal could be.”
For Gay Mormons who opt to remain within the church, staying isn't always up to them.
Einbender fears that he and Mickelson, despite their ward's sympathetic bishop, will be excommunicated. There’s “a lot of local leadership that have no desire to excommunicate anyone,” he told me. The Handbook gives local leaders enough autonomy to allow them to look the other way from gay marriages if they choose. But, he said, it’s not that easy to find a gay-friendly bishop. Bishops aren’t permanently placed within a ward; they swap after five years. So finding someone who won’t excommunicate you is a gamble—as Einbender says, “bishop roulette.”
It's possible to practice as an excommunicated Mormon. John Gustav-Wrathal, a senior vice president (along with Richardson) at Affirmation, a group for LGBT Mormons and their allies, was excommunicated in 1986. He's participated in the church as best he can: He attends prayers, participates in charitable missions, sings in his ward's choir, and describes himself as a "believing Mormon." Like the others, he feels accepted within his congregation.
Gustav-Wrathal told me that he left the church when he was excommunicated, but returned nearly two decades later. "I am very compelling, very powerful personal spiritual experience." Gustav-Wrathal told me. "I felt God telling me that it was time to go back."
At the end of the day, the gay men who are sticking with Mormonism don’t believe that the church leaders have the authority to dictate their relationships with God. As Harrison told me, "This is my church."
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.