The Mormon Church Just Excommunicated a Feminist Pushing for Change

Yesterday afternoon, Kate Kelly, a vocal activist for greater gender equality within the Mormon Church, was excommunicated for her alleged apostasy. "I'm feeling really disappointed, and dejected, and just forsaken," she told me, audibly downcast, in a brief interview after the decision was announced.

In recent months, Kelly has become the most famous face advocating for an update to the way the LDS church treats men and women. It's important to understand that Mormon men are practically de facto members of the "priesthood" and they're eligible as young as 12. While women can hold various leadership positions, they're cut off from much of the church hierarchy. (It's a bit like being a woman in America before the 19th Amendment.) As a founder of Ordain Women, Kelly has led protests outside the church's annual meeting in Salt Lake City, calling attention to the exclusion and pushing for extension of the priesthood—or at least some serious prayer on the matter.

But yesterday the church slammed the door in her face. The New York Times reports that Kelly was tried in absentia by the local church authorities in Virginia, where she lived until recently. Accused of apostasy, "defined as repeated and public advocacy of positions that oppose church teachings," she was excommunicated. The letter from Bishop Mark Harrison announcing the panel's decision specifically cited her work on Ordain Women and concluded:

The difficulty, Sister Kelly, is not that you say you have questions or even that you believe that women should receive the priesthood. 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 while remaining in full fellowship in the Church.

So it's keep your mouth shut or else, I guess! Retired religion prof Jan Shipps, who spoke to the AP, called this "boundary maintenance." Basically, she's been made into a human "do not cross" sign: "It does more than excommunicate Kelly," said Shipps. "It warns everybody." This doesn't bode well for John Dehlin, an advocate for greater Mormon acceptance of gays who faces similar ecclesiastical charges.

Kelly compared the punishment to being shunned from a family, or stripped of one's citizenship: "Those are more universal concepts, and those are very analogous to what's happening to me right now. I'm in effect being stripped of my Mormon citizenship, because I'm following my conscience." The bishop's letter outlines the consequences:

This means that you may not wear temple garments or contribute tithes and offerings. You may not take the sacrament, hold a Church calling, give a talk in Church, offer a public prayer in behalf of the class or congregation in a Church meeting, or vote in the sustaining of Church officers.

It's the harshest punishment she could've received. "I am just trying to pick up the pieces of my own, shattered identity," she admitted when I asked her what's next.

It's easy for a non-churchgoer to say "well, fuck them, anyway." But Kelly, a lifelong active Mormon and true believer who once served as a missionary, doesn't see it that way: "If you're part of a community, the answer isn't to leave that community, even if it needs repairs or to be more inclusive," Kelly explained.

"This wouldn't just affect a small handful of women," she added. "It would affect every single Mormon family in the world. And that's something that's worth fighting for." Kelly explained she was prompted to embark on this course, in part, by her work as an international human right attorney: "I'm so inspired by the work of my clients and the people that I work with that I felt like a hypocrite because I wasn't doing anything in my most intimate community."

In the official statement from Ordain Women, she urged believers to stick with it: "I love the gospel and the courage of its people. Don't leave. Stay, and make things better."

Technically, Kelly could be rebaptized and readmitted to the church. But that comes with more strings attached than a professional ballplayer's prenup:

"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 be truthful in your communications with others regarding matters that involve your priesthood leaders, including the administration of Church discipline, and you must stop trying to gain a following for yourself or your cause and taking actions that could lead others away from the Church."

Doesn't sound like she's ready to back down, though: "I think the Church has really underestimated Mormon women at every step of the way. And if they think that punishing, through a very arbitrary and abusive process, one person, is going to stop this movement, they're dead wrong."

Photo via AP Images.