Mormon LGBT Policy Prompts Anger, Resignations and Fresh Concerns About Aged Leaders

Editorial cartoon courtesy of Pat Bagley | Salt Lake Tribune

Editorial cartoon courtesy of Pat Bagley | Salt Lake Tribune

By R.B. Scott

Note: All people cited in this article are engaged members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Some preferred to speak anonymously.

San Francisco, CA - Heated differences over same sex-marriage and related LGBT issues triggered wrenching theological divisions and prolonged internecine warfare amongst Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, Episcopalians and Southern Baptists. Now it’s the Mormons’ turn.

Hundreds of Latter-day Saints have resigned since early November when the church abruptly released a new policy forbidding membership to children of same gender couples. Faithful critics say the diktat penalizes children for their parents’ choices, and endangers the well-being of young LGBT Mormons striving to reconcile their personal lives with profound commitments to their families, church and heritage. It is a policy that in very personal ways touches virtually every church member and family.

The new policy and other recent statements from the pulpit warn all members against supporting civil same sex marriage. Such orders contradict counsel from the late Mormon president, Gordon B. Hinckley, who, in 2006, indicated there were many faithful ways to address the matter. And, it runs counter to statements issued by The First Presidency in June (2015).

According to an official with routine access to members of the governing councils of the church, the new instructions were the brainchild of two senior apostles who used as a guide the church’s policy on baptizing children of parents practicing plural marriage found in the 2010 edition of the Handbook #1 for regional and local leaders of the church. Although the source did not reveal the names of the apostles involved, it is reasonable to assume that one of them would have been Russell M. Nelson, 91, the president of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles and first in line to succeed Thomas S. Monson, the acutely ailing current president of the church.

A second similarly-connected source insisted that the policy came from Monson himself, with assistance from church attorneys and other staff members.

Both reports maintain that in a fleeting lucid moment the 88-year-old Monson approved the policy, an endorsement that was immediately supported by his counselors. Most of the remaining apostles were surprised when the new policy was introduced for the first time to them at their regular Tuesday meeting, where they too obligingly sustained it. Two days later it was broadcast privately to regional and local leaders of the church. Both sources confirmed that the addendum, as written, circumvented customary vetting by church’s persnickety correlation committee.

Procedural and doctrinal inconsistencies as well as the abrupt about-face it represents have not only prompted questions about the policy’s durability but resurrected festering concerns about the vigor and mental acuity of increasingly aged church leaders. Through the 1950s the average lifespan of presidents of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was around 80 years. As the average rose to more than 90 years, so too did the rate of dementia and the need for their counselors to run the church for increasingly longer periods of time.

Excepting Harold B. Lee, who died unexpectedly of a pulmonary hemorrhage at the age of 74 in 1973, and Gordon B. Hinckley, who remained mentally sharp until days before his death at the age of 97 in 2008, all other prophets were severely incapacitated for their final years of life. The challenges presented by physical and mental limitations are likely to increase in virtual lockstep with rising American life expectancy rates..

The new imperative, officially an addendum to the 2010 handbook, instructs regional leaders of the church to withhold church membership from children of same gender marriages and relationships until they are 18-years-old, and then only if they comply with other demanding stipulations that may have the effect of discouraging contact between them and their LGBT parents. It also mandates that even legally married same-gender couples be branded apostates and subjected to church discipline, including excommunication.

Over the summer of 2015, members of the governing quorums of the church intensely discussed but failed to reach a consensus on how the church should respond to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling issued June 26th favoring same sex marriage. A few days after the decision, the First Presidency had advised regional leaders that while the court had not altered the church’s view of same sex marriage it affirmed that "those who avail themselves of laws or court rulings authorizing samesex marriage should not be treated disrespectfully. Indeed, the Church has advocated for rights of samesex couples in matters of hospitalization and medical care, fair housing and employment, and probate….”

Because the intense summer discussions failed to yield a clear consensus before the church’s semi-annual general conference in October, most apostles were startled in early November when they were asked to sustain a policy they were seeing for the first time.

As these new instructions are encorporated into the 2010 edition of Handbook (#1), that is now updated electronically in real time and is available online to authorized leaders, they will be reviewed finally by the demanding correlation committee, discussed thoroughly by the governing quorums of the church and aligned with church doctrines, teachings and related policies. Many hope that the process will dilute or eliminate altogether language that could be easily construed as mean-spirited attacks on the LGBT community generally and discourage local leaders from treating the rules as church doctrine. Mormons are painfully aware that another misbegotten policy preventing the ordination of black men of African ancestry became a de facto doctrine that endured for more than 130 years, despite the fact that it contradicted the fundamental teachings of church founder Joseph Smith.

Throughout November as news of the new LGBT policy spread, many faithful critics noted that it was neither fair nor necessary to penalize innocent children nor label partners to a legal marriage as “apostates” unless the church was also planning to similarly brand cohabiting heterosexuals and prohibit membership to all children born out of wedlock. A clarifying letter rushed out a week later from the First Presidency did little to mollify concerns. Engaged members continued to insist that the policy simply was unnecessary. Several adamantly insisted in public and to their local church leaders that they knew the policy was not from God. Through tears a young mother asked "is this the church I love? It's just so mean."

Was it the last bitter hurrah from a passing generation that for more than a quarter century stridently opposed civil same sex marriage throughout the United States? Lance Wickman, now an emeritus general authority of the church and its general counsel who may have had a hand in shaping the new policy, has been a persistent adversary of what he once called the “affliction” of same-gender attraction and marriage. “Marriage means a committed, legally sanctioned relationship between a man and a woman,” he once said emphatically. “That’s what it means in the revelations… in the secular law. You cannot have that marriage coexisting institutionally with something else called same-gender marriage. It simply is a definitional impossibility.”

His opinions have been reinforced by Elder Dallin Oaks, a senior apostle who once clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren and was a Utah Supreme Court justice himself. As recently as October of 2013 Oaks warned that faithful members should not "…condone such behaviors {same sex marriage} or to find justification in the laws that permit them.”

In 2008 Oaks and fellow Apostles Russell Ballard and Quentin Cook, and Wickman played instrumental roles in supporting the Proposition 8 anti-gay marriage initiative in California that sprang to life just a few months after the often mercurial Monson succeeded Gordon B. Hinckley as president of the church. Although it’s impossible to know exactly how the late leader would have responded to eleventh hour pleas for support from other religious groups in California, Hinckley had concluded as early as 2006 that civil same gender marriage was protected by the U.S. Constitution, as the court would confirm nine years later.

The thankless task of justifying this latest reactive church policy was bucked down by both The First Presidency and Russell Nelson, the president of the Quorum of Twelve, to the default spokesman -- a more junior apostle, the 70-year-old Elder D. Todd Christofferson, an attorney by profession himself who has oversight of the church's robust and proficient communications department. Christofferson once clerked for the redoubtable Judge John J. Sirica during the Watergate hearings that led to the resignation of President Nixon. As a church leader, Christofferson was well-known for his reassuring poignant commentaries. His youngest brother Tom is gay and, in fact, was living with his partner in New Canaan, Connecticut when he was warmly welcomed back to the Mormon congregation there in 2007.

A day after the policy was introduced Tom Christofferson told Rational Faiths, a blog that reports on Mormon issues, he worried that people like him would no longer “have the opportunity to go to church even though they’re in a committed, monogamous same sex relationship, and feel welcome.”

In a hastily organized video-taped interview conducted by the church’s public relations chief, Michael D. Otterson, the apostle Christofferson gamely supported the confounding proposition that the policy was protective, not punitive, of children, and supportive of their families. His explanations were inconsistent with his own earlier statements. “There hasn’t been any litmus test or standard imposed that you couldn’t support ...it [civil same-gender marriage], if that’s your belief and you think it’s right,” he said earlier this year.

James Picht, an economics and Russian professor at Louisiana Scholars College predicted a short life for the new edict. “As a policy, it can change on a dime. And, I do expect it to change. Someone jumped ahead of himself. If I was as good a watcher of Temple Square as I am of the Kremlin, I'd be looking for changes in assignments as an indication of who's taking a beat-down. Even if this is a product of narrow legal thinking…it was clumsy, and someone will pay.”

An engaged high priest on the East Coast who once served as a missionary, and later in pivotal ward and stake leadership positions, hopes the policy is very short lived. His wife, an extraordinarily supportive non-member, delivered this wrenching challenge to him: “How long are you going to stick with that hate-filled and prejudiced church? I will never join --not now--not ever," she said. "It is a very sad day,” he wrote. “If they just admitted that they goofed...it would be way easier for all of us to move on.”

On the opposite coast his former missionary companion, who has since served in similar regional and local leadership capacities, and counselled with all of the prophets and many apostles over the past 50 years, advised indelicately: “After stepping in fresh ordure, it’s best to scrape it off your boots before it hardens.”