Joining the Mormon Church is easy. Getting out can be hell.

The San Francisco Examiner, July 17, 2000
By Carol Ness

So says Owen Edwards, a 28-year-old San Francisco masseur and student aesthetician.

Born into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Edwards faces a disciplinary hearing and possible excommunication for submitting his resignation, explaining his reasons and asking to have his name removed from the Mormon Church's membership records.

That was 41/2 months ago - and some 13 years since he had stopped attending church. Edwards charges he is being kept against his will in a church that doesn't even want him because he is gay.

"I just feel like this is very hurtful to me - that I can't just walk away. I have to fight tooth and nail," Edwards said.

"I personally believe the Mormon Church is a vindictive bunch of cult members," he added.

Edwards believes he faces a disciplinary hearing because, in his resignation letter, he said he was gay, had a partner and wanted his name removed because of the church's all-out campaign for Proposition 22, the Knight Initiative against legal gay marriage that Californians passed last year. The Mormon Church considers having gay sex, like murder, grounds for excommunication.

Bishop Bryan Earl's letter informing Edwards that he faced possible excommunication said only that it was "because of information contained in your letter."

The Mormon Church's Bay Area spokesman, Jay Pimentel of Alameda, said he could not comment on Edwards' case because it's confidential.

Edwards is far from alone. Quitting the Mormon Church has long been difficult. Excommunication was the only way to sever ties until the 1980s, when a lawsuit forced the church to allow members to have their names stricken from membership rolls.

But in many cases, so-called name removal can wind up taking months or years, require repeated letters and inquiries, and prompt persistent and ongoing visits and calls from fellow Mormons that, some ex-Mormons say, approach harassment and invasion of privacy.

In some cases, like Edwards', disciplinary hearings are called. Members are investigated, their families and acquaintances are questioned, and any transgression and its punishment can be announced by church leaders.

Members like Edwards who are gay appear especially vulnerable to discipline and excommunication when they try to leave - although the evidence is anecdotal.

The church's campaign for Prop. 22 prompted a spate of resignations, including Edwards'. Since then, at least 300 Mormons have contacted Kathy Worthington, an ex-Mormon activist in Utah who helps members navigate the name-removal process.

At least three, all of them gay, have been excommunicated.

How many people resign yearly, or try to, is impossible to assess. Through Pimentel, the church declined to provide statistics on name-removal requests - how many are submitted, if that number is growing, how many end up in disciplinary hearings or lead to excommunication - or explain why. A call to the membership records director at church headquarters in Salt Lake City was not returned.

Pimentel said name removals are handled locally and each case is different. He denied that the church can try to make it hard for people to leave.

Members who write letters seeking to resign will be contacted by church leaders to make sure they're not being pressured, and that they understand the consequences for their souls, he said.

If there is a suspicion that the member has committed some transgression, however, disciplinary hearings can be called. Such transgressions include criminal behavior and sex out of marriage.

Pimentel was not sure if homosexuality, without proof of sexual activity, was enough to trigger a hearing. The Mormon Church, like many mainstream Christian churches, considers homosexuality immoral but retains gay members if they are chaste and seek to change.

The three excommunications this year, however, suggest a different story.

Forty-eight-year-old Loyd Bulkley of Murray, Utah, was raised in the church, married and raised his four children as Mormons and then divorced. He came out of the closet nine years ago.

He stopped going to church, except for special occasions involving his children. Church leaders challenged him once, and he told them to get lost.

But after a spat with his most devout son, he decided to quit. His letter didn't say he was gay, and asked that he not be contacted.

"Then I get a letter saying, "We have heard from reliable sources that you are homosexual. We can't just let you resign. We have to have a disciplinary court,' " Bulkley recalled. His hearing was June 15, held before 15 assembled church leaders.

"Twelve men in a high council and three stake presidents - to kick out one gay man who wants to be out. I felt like one letter should have done it," he said.

He was excommunicated, although the church had no evidence of sexual activity. Family members who had not known he was gay have cut off contact with him as a result, he said.

If you don't take your name off, he said, "you can quit going and they can harass and torment you, they send teachers over and people to visit you and call you and invite you to functions. They want you back into the church.

"It's never really your choice," he added. "Then if you do something wrong they'll kick you out."

Two Cedar City, Utah, women in their 30s tell a similar story. Both raised in the Mormon church, they fell in love. Once they moved in together, the church started sending visiting teachers, to spy, one of the women thinks.

Earlier this year they wrote separate letters of resignation, saying they disagreed with church policies and involvement in politics.

Then their bishop showed up, trembling, to ask if "what we've heard is true," the woman related. They were excommunicated.

"They took away our power to decide what we want to do," she said. Her partner's family was devastated, she said. Her cousins stopped talking to her.

All three have talked about trying to sue the church.

Worthington has been trying to get a class-action lawsuit together, but said Utah laws aren't conducive. She's hoping Edwards will sue in California, which has explicit privacy guarantees.

He's seeking a lawyer, but churches have proved fairly immune to litigation over their treatment of members.

Like most Mormons, Edwards was born into the church. He was baptized at age 8 - before he was old enough to make such a decision for himself.

When he was 13, he realized he was gay and decided he was OK, no matter what his church thought.

He's had almost nothing to do with the church since he was 15, when he left his mother's Utah home for his father's in Southern California.

Since 1997, he's lived in San Francisco, now with his partner in the Tenderloin. He's a licensed masseur and attends Miss Marty's beauty school on Mission Street to get his spa certification.

He never before sought to quit the church because he didn't want to have to tell his mother, for whom Mormonism is vital. But activism by people like Worthington over the church's Prop. 22 campaign galvanized him to write his letter.

He doesn't intend to go to his hearing next week and he expects it to result in excommunication.

He didn't intend to try to take the church on in court, but its refusal to let him quit has sparked the fight in him.

The spiritual effect of excommunication is, to Edwards, the same as if he were just allowed to quit. But it is a black mark against him with other people, who because of the process will find out he is gay, he said.

"This is the first time I have ever spoken out against the church directly," he said, "because in my opinion they are attacking me directly and I have no choice."

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