Why you should care

A public Mormon excommunication leaves a younger generation of Mormons at a crossroads, both disheartened and galvanized by their church’s stance on women.

What happens if you have to pick between heaven and equality?

It’s exactly the decision Kate Kelly felt she had to make. The feminist Mormon was recently excommunicated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, following her call for female ordination. In 2013, Kelly, a human rights lawyer, started the website Ordain Women, asking that the LDS church extend the male-only priesthood to women. During these past few months, she was warned repeatedly that she should take down the website and disaffiliate from the group, or face consequences.

On June 23, she received an email from her bishop, Mark Harrison, informing her of her excommunication:

“The difficulty, Sister Kelly, is not that you say you have questions or even that you believe women should receive the priesthood,” wrote Bishop Harrison to Kelly. “The problem is that you have persisted in an aggressive effort to persuade other Church members to your point of view and that your course of action has threatened to erode the faith of others. You are entitled to your views, but you are not entitled to promote them and proselyte others to them.”

Kelly’s excommunication has left a younger generation of Mormon feminists to question their involvement in the church. Her activism isn’t a purely religious cause, but a deeply cultural one about the role of women within Mormonism. In the LDS church, holding the priesthood does not mean the same thing as being a priest in other faiths, like Catholicism; it’s a type of spiritual authority, which can be received by Mormon males as young as age 12, but isn’t available to women of any age.

The priesthood allows lay boys and men to baptize family members and close friends, as well as administer blessings of healing or comfort to those who are sick or in need of counsel. In a faith where spirituality is so closely entwined with daily life, being denied the priesthood speaks not only to women’s diminished authority within the lay church organization, Kelly’s group argues, but also to a culture of spiritual and domestic inequality.

By excommunicating her, it felt like they were excommunicating all of us.

Mormon activists are no longer reacting quietly; they’re outraged, and ready to raise their voices. “By excommunicating her, it felt like they were excommunicating all of us,” says Lindsay Hansen-Park, a 32-year-old blogger at Feminist Mormon Housewives. “It felt like they were saying ‘We don’t want any of you.’ It’s been really painful, and there’s been a lot of fear that there’s going to be an additional crackdown.”

Some members are organizing a mass resignation as retaliation for Kelly’s excommunication. “I think [Kelly’s treatment] is discouraging people from being fully active in the church,” says Stephanie Lauritzen, 27. And yet, Lauritzen thinks Kelly’s “extreme view” has pushed more people to the middle ground of feminism. They may not be ready to call for female priesthood, but they are now mobilized to push for other advancements for women.

If you feel Kelly is misunderstood … it’s a warning sign that ‘perhaps your faith in Jesus Christ is wavering.’

But will the church listen? Lauritzen believes the attitude toward public dissension is evolving, despite the excommunication. In December 2012, she organized Wear Pants to Church Day; previously, Mormon feminism was often private, she explains, but this social media pants campaign made the conversation very public. Church leaders responded by saying that women of God do not need to lobby for rights. Members who opposed her campaign referred to Lauritzen as the Antichrist and said she was going to hell. Now, some critics have softened, and the church says it welcomes open discourse — they just don’t want activists converting others.

Women gathered around a table

Members of the board of Ordain Women hold a meeting after Kate Kelly was excommunicated.

Source Getty

Still, many Mormon women oppose Kelly’s advocacy. Kathryn Skaggs helped start a group called Mormon Women Stand to voice support for LDS church leaders. Their Facebook page has 29,963 likes, in contrast to Ordain Women’s 5,064.

Mormons hoping to discuss contemporary challenges facing the LDS church will meet at the annual Sunstone Symposium in Utah, July 30 – August 2, which will include Q&A sessions with Kate Kelly and Ordain Women.

Skaggs writes that Kate Kelly and her followers are in “open rebellion to the church, its leaders and therefore God,” by trying to force their will on the Lord’s Prophet (the LDS church president). If you feel Kelly is misunderstood or was wrongfully excommunicated, writes Skaggs, it’s a warning sign that “perhaps your faith in Jesus Christ is wavering and that you might be going down the same path.”

Those stark terms may be shifting. In April, LDS apostle Dallin Oaks told an all-male conference of priestholders that women “exercise priesthood authority” all of the time in their callings — a seemingly revolutionary statement.

They are not asking church leaders to alter the priesthood — they are asking them to ask God to alter it.

Lauritzen calls this a significant language change. “It’s different from ‘The greatest blessing women can have is being a wife and mother to a priesthood holder’ to ‘Hey, women do have some sort of access to priesthood authority, and we kind of forgot to tell you that for the last 180 years.’”

“So they are moving to more of a middle ground — just kicking and screaming and excommunicating people along the way,” Lauritzen says.

However, Oaks added that LDS leaders “are not free to alter the divine decreed pattern that only men will hold offices in the priesthood.” Feminists would argue they are not asking church leaders to alter the priesthood — they are asking the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to ask God to alter it.

The church remains at a crossroads, with mixed messages risking the alienation of a younger generation of Mormons who are more socially liberal-minded. Hansen-Park says the church’s stance tells young girls that they are not valued and don’t have control of their lives.

“Kate Kelly is a lawyer who is educated. She is educated on women’s issues.” says Hansen-Park. “What are the incentives for a young girl in the church to get an education, when a room with men can decide in a little meeting whether she goes to heaven or hell or not?

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