LDS Church disciplines musician

The Salt Lake Tribune/February 24, 2008

Rose Park - Peter Danzig did not set out to be a Mormon activist.

The gentle musician spent his life serving the church he loved. He went on a mission, married in the temple, composed pieces for Mormon pageants, and taught hymns to children. He and his wife, Mary, also a returned missionary, were raising their three daughters in Levan, but driving to Salt Lake City each week to play in the LDS Orchestra at Temple Square - he on viola, she, the violin. Both believed their music was their gift to God.

Danzig said nothing in 1993 when church officials charged six well-known Mormon scholars and intellectuals with apostasy for their writings or speeches about LDS issues. He kept quiet when Brigham Young University fired history professor Steven Epperson, a member of Danzig's Mormon congregation, for serving the homeless rather than attending church.

But in 2006, Danzig finally felt compelled to protest. BYU adjunct professor Jeffrey Nielsen lost his job for arguing in a The Salt Lake Tribune column that the LDS Church was wrong to oppose gay marriage and to enlist Mormon support for a constitutional amendment against it.

The dismissal appalled Danzig, who had explored the questions of homosexuality while pursuing a graduate degree in clinical social work. "I wish to express to Jeffery Nielson that that I admire his courage and that I stand with him," Danzig wrote in a letter The Tribune published on June 14, 2006. "I was troubled that my church requested I violate my own conscience to write in support of an amendment I feel is contrary to the constitution and to the gospel of Christ."

What happened next is disheartening to many who believe the church should allow its members to express divergent political and personal views. While others wrote letters in support of Nielsen without facing discipline, Danzig endured months of grueling attacks on his motives and membership.

"There is room in the [LDS] Church for honest disagreement regarding church positions," LDS Spokesman Scott Trotter said. "Disagreement on doctrine only becomes an issue when a church member acts in open opposition to the church or its leaders."

Deciding when a person is in "open opposition" varies among Mormon bishops and stake presidents. Clearly, someone at the top thought Danzig had crossed that line.

In his Tribune letter, Danzig mentioned he played in the orchestra, which is open to Mormons in good standing. He wanted to make it clear he was not a church opponent.

Within a week, LDS officials contacted Danzig with concerns about the letter. They suspended him from the orchestra and for the next year, he and, ultimately his wife, defended their loyalty, faith and actions. No amount of persuasion or pleading could convince these ecclesiastical leaders they meant well.

Ultimately, the Danzigs moved out of their Levan house and, in December, resigned their membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rather than face excommunication.

"Part of the reason for writing the letter was to find out if there was room for personal conscience in this church. I was very hopeful," Peter Danzig said. "But now I know there is none. This has been a painful journey for me."

Set in motion: It began with a call from Michael Watson, secretary to the church's governing First Presidency, to Barry Anderson, orchestra administrator, and Mac Christensen, president of the Tabernacle Choir, which is associated with the orchestra. Danzig said Anderson told him Watson wondered whether "an enemy had infiltrated the orchestra."

Eventually, the Danzigs' bishop and stake president in Levan got involved.

All of the leaders declined to comment or offer any written accounts of their actions.

"Communications of this nature between church leaders and members are considered confidential," Trotter said.

Danzig wrote an outline of his version of events and sent it to several of the leaders, offering to correct anything they thought was inaccurate. He received no reply from the orchestra or choir reps, but local leaders said if he published any part of his outline, they would hold a disciplinary hearing.

"In hindsight I could have used some different language, but what I wrote expressed the feelings of my heart," he said. "I have seen the church abuse too many, including my family, without anyone daring to speak out. It is important to me that the silence about this abuse end."

Initially, Mary Danzig thought it was all a big misunderstanding. But soon, her own devotion to the church came into question. She, too, felt unwelcome in the orchestra. Her parents wrote letters to church authorities, begging for an audience or at least some understanding. They were unsuccessful.

"I felt like my world had come crashing down when Peter told me he might be excommunicated," said Mary Danzig, at the time a member of the Primary Presidency in her ward.

"What would happen to my family in the eternities, in our community, in our extended family? I found myself coming completely unglued every Sunday. I spent a great deal of time hiding in the bathroom crying with my little girls."

Shifting approaches: Between June 2006 and December 2007, the LDS Church came out with several statements acknowledging homosexuality may be inborn and difficult to change, even with much effort and prayer. It was exactly the position Danzig had been defending.

Many committed Mormons, including philosophers, psychologists and some politicians, disagree with the church on the Federal Marriage Amendment, said Nielsen, who now teaches at Utah Valley State College and Westminster College. Several members wrote letters to The Tribune defending Nielsen and sharing his view. He is unaware of disciplinary action taken against any of those letter writers.

Nielsen could no longer teach "gospel doctrine" in adult Sunday school and has not been called to any other position in his Orem ward, but has suffered no other ecclesiastical consequences.

Bill Bradshaw, a recently retired BYU professor of microbiology, has given several public addresses about the science of homosexuality, detailing published evidence that argues strongly for a biological origin. He is also the chairman, with his wife, Marge Bradshaw, of Family Fellowship, a support group for the LDS families with gay and lesbian children.

After a relative complained to their bishop, the man invited the Bradshaws in for a discussion.

"Our bishop responded very favorably to the conversation," Bradshaw said. "He was very sympathetic."

Bradshaw doesn't entirely blame the Mormon leaders for what happened to the Danzigs. Human interactions like this are too complicated.

But he does feel an overwhelming sadness.

"Now I can't sit in church next to Peter and Mary and their kids and I can't sit next to gay members of the church, whom they were defending," Bradshaw said. "The bottom line is I don't have the fellowship of loving people and that's a hurt for me."

Peter Danzig's letter to the editor of The Tribune published June 14, 2006:

As a member of the LDS Church, returned missionary and member of the Orchestra at Temple Square, I am appalled at the intellectual tyranny that our leadership has exercised through the summary dismissal of Jeffrey Nielsen from his teaching position at Brigham Young University for speaking his mind in an op-ed published June 4 in The Tribune. I was troubled that my church requested that I violate my own conscience to write in support of an amendment (marriage) I feel is contrary to the Constitution and to the gospel of Christ.

I am even more discouraged to see how they deal with an honest difference of opinion.

I wish to express to Jeffrey Nielsen that I admire his courage and that I stand with him. I hope that rank-and-file members of the church as well as members of the lay clergy who also find this troubling will have the courage to step forward and let themselves be known. To do anything else would be to hide in the shadow of an injustice.

The LDS Church on homosexuality:

1998: LDS Church donates $1.1 million to oppose gay marriage proposals in Hawaii and Alaska

1999: With the help of Mormons in the state, California passes Proposition 22, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman

Feb. 25, 2000: Stuart Matis, a homosexual LDS returned missionary, shoots himself on steps of LDS chapel in Los Altos, Calif, to symbolize the pain the church's efforts were causing its gay members.

Summer 2006: Church releases an interview with Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, and Lance Wickman, a member of the First Quorum of Seventy, on what causes homosexuality (they don't know), whether gays choose their attractions (not likely), change therapies (they don't endorse any of them), whether Mormon gays should marry women ("doesn't usually solve the problem"), the distinction between civil unions and marriage for gays, and why the church endorsed a constitutional marriage amendment.

July 2007: The LDS Church posts a new pamphlet on homosexuality on its Web site. The piece, titled "God Loveth His Children" is sent to all Mormon bishops and stake presidents,

September 2007: LDS Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland reiterates the church's position that same-sex attraction is not a sin; only acting on it is immoral. He does not try to explain the causes of these attractions, but acknowledges they are real.

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