Mormon Priest Threatened with Excommunication in Marriage Row

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday September 22, 2008

A Hastings, Neb., Mormon man has been threatened with excommunication by his bishop for working against an anti-gay amendment in Calif.

This past summer, the leadership of the Mormon church has instructed its membership to support Proposition 8, the ballot initiative in Calif. that, if approved in Nov., will rescind marriage parity for gay and lesbian families.

Also this past summer, the church published a new document that clarified the church's stance on marriage for gay and lesbain families, as reported at EDGE.

The new document was seen by some as a reversal of the church's earlier opposition to all forms of recognition for gay and lesbian families, because it included language supportive of existing domestic partnership laws in Calif., while condemning marriage equality.

Andrew Callahan, who says that he is "a high priest in good standing" in the Mormon church, contacted the media by means of an email, dated Sept. 21, in which Hastings claimed that his efforts to counter the Mormon leadership's instruction had included co-creating a Web site "where Mormons, former Mormons, and friends of the Mormon Church could write letters and post them online to state their opposition to the Mormon Church's political stance."

The result, Callahan said, was a visit from his bishop that amounted to a threat of excommunication from the Mormons.

Callahan recounted, "In late June the leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints... issued a letter to its members in California encouraging them to support Proposition 8, an amendment to the California constitution that will eliminate the right of same sex couples to marry.

"The letter asked members to do all they could to support the proposed constitutional amendment by donating both money and time."

Continued Callahan, "Although I'm a resident of Hastings, Nebraska, not California, I almost immediately began trying to get the Mormon Church to change its position on the issue.

"This just reminded me so much of the racial bigotry that Mormon leaders have historically been so famous for.

"Our past leaders insisted that racial bigotry against blacks was God's divine idea," Callahan continued, adding, "now current ones are promoting this same kind of bigoted nonsense about gays and lesbians."

Stated Callahan, "I'm a Mormon high priest in good standing and have served in many local leadership positions in my more than 20 years in the Mormon Church."

In that capacity, Callahan not only helped to create the Web site where pro-marriage equality Mormons could speak out, he "also wrote hundreds of letters to middle level church leaders stating this opposition to the plan put forth by top leadership in the Mormon Church, and invited the middle level leaders to join with me in that opposition."

The church's leadership seemingly took note of Callahan's efforts; claimed Callahan, "On August 18, the Mormon Church headquarters in Salt Lake City disseminated a 'Notice' to virtually all of the Mormon ecclesiastical leaders in the United States, directing them to 'disregard' communications from me.

"The Notice also directed that the lay membership of the Church be told to disregard me."

Nonetheless, Callahan recounted, "I continued my efforts, contacting lay members directly in several states, and also starting a petition online that asks the Mormon Church to immediately discontinue its political organizing activities and financial support of the California amendment."

Callahan's continued efforts on behalf of preserving marriage equality seemingly led to a visit from his bishop.

"On September 11, 2008, my bishop, Bryan Woodbury of Clay Center, Nebraska visited me stating that he was there by assignment of higher authorities in the church," Callahan recounted.

"Bishop Woodbury offered me a chance to resign my membership in the Mormon Church, and when I declined, the bishop stated that there would be disciplinary action and that my membership in the Mormon Church was 'not mandatory.'

"Bishop Woodbury indicated that he would be back 'pretty quick' with a letter from the next higher level ecclesiastical leader," Callahan continued.

"This was clearly a threat of excommunication, because bishops have full authority to discipline high priests in the Mormon Church with every form of church discipline except excommunication, which must be done at the next higher level."

Continued Callahan, "Bishop Woodbury stated that the reasons for the excommunication would be that I am 'going in a different direction' from the church, and I am in 'opposition' to the Mormon Church."

Added Callahan, "The bishop gave the analogy that if I were a member of a gay and lesbian organization and collected signatures on a petition supporting Proposition 8, that organization would probably kick me out, and suggested that the Mormon Church was about to do that to me now."

As reported by various media, including a Sept. 20 article by The Wall Street Journal, the instructions issued by the Mormon leadership for its members to support the ballot initiative seem to have had a discernable effect.

The Wall Street Journal article said that of the nearly $15 and a half million that have come pouring into the effort by the state's marriage equality opponents, more than a third have been contributions by Mormons.

The article said that figure came from the campaign manager of the anti-gay-family group ProtectMarriage.org, Frank Schubert, along with other sources, including an organization that keeps tables on finances reckoning the Mormons' contributions might be even higher--perhaps more than 40 percent of the total.

Campaign consultant for pro-marriage equality group No on 8, Equality for All, Steve Smith, was quoted in the article as saying, "all of a sudden, in the last few weeks, [the anti-marriage side] are outraising us, and it appears to be Mormon money."

The group trying to preserve the freedom to marry for gay and lesbian families has collected about $13 million, the article said.

Though the leadership of the Mormon church had phrased support for the anti-gay amendment as "a matter of conscience" in urging its membership to contribute, some local church officials reportedly had told Mormons that it would endanger their souls not to give.

The Wall Street Journal cited the church's top leadership as saying that was not consistent with the church's official position.

The article indicated that the Mormon leadership's instruction to its members to "do all you can" in support of the anti-gay amendment may be due to the fact that if Calif.'s legalization of marriage equality weathers the challenge at the polls, marriage equality in other states may pick up momentum.

Recent polls nationwide have indicated that in the last four years, since the 2004 election in which marriage equality was a hot-button issue used to energize conservative voters, opposition to gay families solemnizing their ties has dwindled.

More locally, polls in Calif. Show a 14 percent margin of voters opposing the revocation of the right to marry, the article said.

But the issue has drawn huge amounts of money from around the country to benefit both sides. Anti-gay Catholic lay organization the Knights of Columbus contributed $1 million; the anti-gay group Focus on the Family has chipped in nearly a half a million dollars.

Pro-marriage leaders have warned that even though the polls show that marriage equality is leading, the outcome could be very different, both because there may be a large number of voters who are as yet undecided, and also because precedent has shown that even when a majority of voters say they are supportive of marriage rights for gay and lesbian families, once they in the voting booth, a significant percentage who polled as supportive of marriage tend to vote against the rights of gay families.

The issue of Mormons involvement in the issue is especially relevant to the tenets of Mormon faith, the article reported, citing a University of Richmond professor of literature and religion.

Prof. Terryl Givens explained that Mormons believe that families continue into eternity, with spouses continuing to procreate even after death.

Heterosexual marriage is also believed by Mormons to be a prerequisite to attain the highest level of bliss in the spiritual world.

The article quoted givens as saying, "This all explains the Mormon difficulty with homosexuality," adding, that in this framework of faith, "same-sex attraction doesn't find a place."

The article noted that it is unusual for the Mormon church to involve itself so directly in political matters.

One other notable exception was the church's official oposition to the Equal Rights Amendment three decdades ago.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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