Founder of Mormon women’s movement excommunicated by all-male church panel

A human rights attorney who founded a group advocating for the ordination of women in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was excommunicated Monday by an all-male panel in Northern Virginia.

The penalty, which followed a disciplinary hearing Sunday evening in Oakton, said Kate Kelly’s membership may be up for reconsideration in the future if she proves she has ceased “actions that undermine the Church.”

Experts on Mormon history say Kelly, 33, who was convicted on the charge of apostasy for her public organizing with Ordain Women, is part of a wave of some of the highest-profile excommunications in decades. The church is trying to maintain some control over its theological and social boundaries as Mormonism has become more mainstream and open to the larger culture.

“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,” read the June 23 letter to Kelly from Mark Harrison, her bishop in Oakton until she moved this month to Utah.

Among other things, Kelly was told not to “wear temple garments or contribute tithes and offerings . . . take the sacrament, hold a Church calling, give a talk in Church, offer a public prayer on behalf of the class or congregation in a Church meeting, or vote in the sustaining of Church officers.”

Kelly said she hopes the decision will help shed light on gender inequality within the church. “I hope there is a point where people band together and fight against silencing women,” she said.

“I’m not going to give up on the cause because . . . in God’s eyes, I am equal,” she added.

Kathleen Flake, a religion historian at the University of Virginia who focuses on women in Mormonism, said Ordain Women was using a political model of change — including training workshops and public protests — in a religious institution. “And that’s a clash of cultures.”

“I think this is yet another one of those moments — and there have been many in Mormonism — where people will have to decide whether the church is changing fast enough,” Flake said. “Mormonism is trying to understand itself in terms of gender and power. For [Mormons] the question is: What’s the baby and what’s the bath water?”

Flake and regular Mormons agreed that the excommunication would likely chill public conversations around the topic of women’s ordination in Mormonism, a faith group that many Americans still associate with the word “cult.”

Some have noted that the church denied blacks the priesthood until the 1970s, but, Flake said, gender is “far more central” to Mormonism than race. Although women hold many leadership positions in the church, they cannot be bishops or sit on the highest ruling body, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles — a tradition meant to mirror common interpretations that Jesus Christ’s top advisers were only men.

But Flake said church leaders are talking more about gender, including how to define authority.

“This whole conversation may be robust among people privately. That’s what the church wants — to keep it private,” Flake said.

Kelly, who now lives in Provo, Utah, was accused of turning away from the principles of the gospel because of her role in Ordain Women. As markers of her faith, she noted that she had participated in a mission, attended Brigham Young University and was married in the church.

Greg Prince, 66, a retired scientist and historian of the faith who advocates for progressive views, said he is ambivalent as to whether women should be ordained but believes Mormon women need more of a voice.

“Frankly, I think women should be allowed to make the decision for themselves,” Prince said. “Part of our problem is we’ve had men make all binding decisions.”

James Patterson, 32, a church member in Fairfax County who wrote a blog post questioning the church’s disciplinary councils for women, said Monday that the decision will embolden Kelly’s critics. “This is a church culture that looks to leaders to know how to act. When the prophet speaks, we fall in line,” he said.

Patterson said he is not a “direct supporter” of women’s ordination but is concerned about the stifling of conversation. He said he had e-mailed his own bishop to voice his concern.

“I said: ‘This makes me feel like I’m being silenced as well.’ They said, ‘It’s not the conversation, it’s how the conversation is being held.’ I don’t buy it.”

Kelly is one of at least two high-profile Mormons recently subjected to disciplinary councils. John Dehlin, of Logan, Utah, is a well-known advocate for dissenting Mormons and created a forum online to help them gather. He is scheduled to face a disciplinary council next week.