The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has indefinitely postponed a disciplinary hearing Sunday that could have led to excommunication of a scholar who challenged a church tenet that dark skin is a curse from God.
Thomas Murphy, the lifetime Mormon whose writings were at issue, said candlelight vigils - scheduled at the Mormon church in north suburban Lynnwood, where the hearing was planned, and at others around the country - had been postponed as well.
He said he planned a thank-you party for local supporters at his Lynnwood-area home.
A Sunday vigil at church headquarters in Salt Lake City was to proceed as planned, said organizer Steven Clark from Park City, Utah.
In a Saturday letter to supporters, Murphy said the intent of that gathering was "to bring attention to the racism and sexism in Mormon scripture and to object to homophobia and intellectual intimidation in the LDS Church."
Intellectual freedom within the church has long been a matter of contention. Murphy has said he expected to be excommunicated at the now-postponed disciplinary council.
"The postponement of this disciplinary council is truly a victory for all those who favor an honest search for truth and are willing to speak out against the injustices of racism, sexism, homophobia, and anti-intellectualism," he said in his Saturday letter.
In a telephone interview Sunday, Murphy - chairman of the anthropology department at Edmonds Community College in Lynnwood - said he hoped the postponement "means it's now OK to speak about the Book of Mormon as a work of 19th century fiction.
"And I am also hopeful that the church is willing to abandon its teaching that a dark skin is a curse from God," he said.
Matthew Latimer, president of the Lynnwood LDS Stake, confirmed Sunday that excommunication was one possible outcome.
"Decisions relating to spiritual welfare are a private matter between each member and his or her local church leader," Latimer said in a statement. "Unfortunately, this matter has received significant media attention, and Mr. Murphy himself has stated publicly that my decision to hold a disciplinary council is emotionally very difficult for him.
"In light of these considerations, I think it is best not to proceed at this time."
At issue is a church tenet that holds that American Indians are descended from people the church calls Lamanites - "heathen descendants of ancient Israel," Murphy said. Most Native Americans consider the claim to be negative, he said.
Murphy was summoned to a disciplinary council for his article "Lamanite Genesis, Genealogy, and Genetics," published in a May 2002 anthology from Signature Books called "American Apocrypha."
In the piece, Murphy said, he used genetic evidence to demonstrate that the belief that American Indians came from Israel is tantamount "to claiming the earth is flat."
In his Saturday letter, Murphy said he had been advised of the council postponement in a phone call from Latimer.
"He wants to take some more time to get to know me and invited me to have some more private discussions before taking any further action," Murphy wrote. Latimer also expressed "a desire to avoid an adversarial relationship that involved sparring in the press."
Latimer's statement said he hoped to meet privately with Murphy "in the hope that his relationship to the Church can be strengthened.
"Of course, Mr. Murphy has the right to request that his name be removed from Church records. But, personally, I hope that he would not do that until we have a chance to talk further."
Murphy said he had not made such a request.
He said Sunday that he was raised Mormon in southern Idaho, still considers himself a Mormon and would fight excommunication.
"I'm not an active member of the local congregation, but I'm very active in the Mormon intellectual community," said the 35-year-old University of Washington graduate student.
Latimer has said previously that the action against Murphy was local, and not directed by church leaders in Utah.
Murphy said he understood candlelight vigils scheduled to coincide with the council hearing had been planned in as many as 10 cities, including Washington, D.C.
"Many people would like to see the LDS Church publicly acknowledge that it is no longer appropriate to label Native Americans as Lamanites or heathen Israelites," Murphy wrote.