An online petition accuses an elder of The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints of being a "celestial" polygamist and calls for the elimination of his name from a letter that advocates monogamous marriage between a man and a woman.
The petition is posted on a web site started by a gay, ex-Mormon activist, whose objection is based on a section of church doctrine that says Mormon men can have multiple wives in heaven. According to the web site, Russell M. Nelson - a widower who recently remarried - believes in religious polygamy and therefore has no business promoting monogamy.
Nelson is a member of the church's Quorum of the Twelve, the second-tier of the faith's senior leadership. Nelson is a signatory on a letter from the Religious Coalition for Marriage, a cadre of leaders from various faiths who support the proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would ban gay marriage.
Nelson appeared at a coalition news conference in Washington, D.C. on Monday and was in a group of religious leaders who met with President Bush.
Nelson, 81, "is married in the temple 'for time and all eternity' to two women," petition author Connell O'Donovan, who claims he was excommunicated from the church for being a gay activist, said in an e-mail to The Associated Press.
"Two simultaneous marriages are the definition of bigamy," O'Donovan said.
Mormon church spokeswoman Kim Farah said the church was aware of the Web site but did not care to comment. The Mormon church officially opposes same-sex marriage.
Mormon theology professes that family life is eternal and all Mormon temple marriage ceremonies include a "sealing" which binds a couple into the afterlife.
Church policy allows for men to be sealed to more than one woman, if the second wife has not previously been sealed in marriage. If she has, the woman could only be sealed to a second husband if she asks for her previous sealing to be removed from church records.
Nelson was widowed from his first wife, Dantzel White Nelson, in February 2005. In Nelson's autobiography, "From Heart to Heart," he states they were married in the Salt Lake temple, Aug. 31, 1945. On April 6, 2006, he married Wendy Lee Watson, a Brigham Young University professor, also in the temple, according to the biography of Nelson posted on the church's Web site. It is Watson's first marriage.
"It is deceptive of Elder Nelson to sign a petition that defines marriage as the union between one man and one woman when he practices a theology that extends the name 'marriage' to a union between a man and multiple women," O'Donovan's petition states.
As of Thursday, the site listed 140 names of supporters from across the country. Not all included a religious affiliation, but among those who did, 29 identified themselves as Mormon and 24 said they were former Mormons. O'Donovan, who is now a Quaker, said he's hoping to get 500 names on the petition before sending it to the coalition, Nelson and the Mormon church.
The coalition did not respond to an e-mail request for comment from The AP.
Polygamy was practiced by Mormons in the 19th century, but abandoned in 1890 after it was banned in federal law and federal authorities threatened to seize church owned property, including its religious temples, if the practice continued.
As a religious doctrine, however, the principle remains unequivocally in place, said Mormon historian and author D. Michael Quinn, who has written extensively about polygamy.
"All of (Mormon church leaders) affirm that sealings that are between righteous men and women and where there has been a death, that those sealings triumph over death," said Quinn. "There is no retreating from that position. That is an essential doctrine."
O'Donovan said Mormon leaders should recognize the church's own history when engaging in a fight to redefine marriage - something it did vigorously in the 1890s.
"They seem to have forgotten the church's lengthy and unsuccessful fight for the freedom to marry the person of one's choice," O'Donovan said.