Mormon Resignations Put Support for Gays Over Fealty to Faith

The New York Times/November 15, 2016

By Jack Healy

Salt Lake City — Ever since she was an infant being blessed during a church naming ceremony, Lindsay Matson had been on the books of the Mormon Church. As it has done with millions of other members, the church kept note of her spiritual life as she moved from congregation to congregation, took youth leadership posts and married at age 19 in a Mormon temple.

But now, she and other Mormons upset over new church policies that declare same-sex couples apostates and restrict their children from baptism and other rites are venting their objections by demanding that their names be struck from the church’s meticulously kept records.

During the weekend, Ms. Matson and two daughters, one of whom is gay, joined more than 1,000 people lining up in a park here beside the church’s temple spires for a mass resignation. Most had not been to church in years, but they described deep ties: They had grown up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, gone on missions, raised their children as Mormons. Even as their faith and attendance ebbed, they remained members on paper.

“There’s a constant contact when your name is on the record,” Ms. Matson said. “The church considers itself responsible for you.”

But walking away can be complicated, both emotionally and administratively, several Mormons at the mass resignation said.

Ms. Matson said she started the process in July with a letter to the church’s records unit at its headquarters. She said she had gotten a brochure asking her to reconsider. A few weeks later, the local bishop visited her home to ask whether she really wanted out. She did, and last month, she said, she got a letter from the church saying she had been removed from its roster.

“That was the end of it,” Ms. Matson said.

Before the gathering in the park on Saturday afternoon, the church’s president, Thomas S. Monson, sent out a Twitter message that seemed directed at any wavering faithful: “I plead with you to avoid anything that will deprive you of your happiness here in mortality and eternal life in the world to come.”

Eric Hawkins, a church spokesman, said: “We don’t want to see anyone leave the church, especially people who have been struggling with any aspect of their life. The church exists to build people and help them heal, and there isn’t one of us who doesn’t need help at some point in our lives.”

For those leaving, removing their names from the records was weighted with symbolism. The Mormon Church vests deep spiritual importance in family-history research and tracing ancestral lines. It has a Family History Library in downtown Salt Lake and runs a genealogy website, FamilySearch.

On Saturday, organizers of the mass resignation brought forms and envelopes and talked people through the process. Notaries were there to stamp the letters. Mark Naugle, a lawyer and former Mormon who often helps people leave the church, took form letters from people and mailed them to the church’s records office. He said he received 1,500 resignations on Saturday.

Some people included heartfelt letters explaining their decision and describing how they loved their gay children or had struggled for years to reconcile being gay and being Mormon. Others just signed a form letter.

Some said they no longer felt any ties to the church, but others said resigning their faith had never been their first choice. They still had a brother who was a bishop, a father who goes to church every Sunday. One woman who refused to give her name, saying she did not want to antagonize her family, said she had waited until after her mother died to resign.

“I’ve shed some tears,” said Kathy Franson, who said she had drifted from the church in large part because her son was gay. “It felt like a death of someone close to me. I compare it to a death, going through that mourning.”

Like Ms. Franson, the vast majority of those leaving now, based on responses at the protest group’s Facebook page, said they had already stopped going to services or participating in the faith. The church says it has 6.5 million members in the United States.

For many who gathered on Saturday, news of the church’s new policies toward same-sex couples and their children had propelled them to leave.

“We perceive it as tearing families apart and making children choose a religion over their parents,” said Brenner Zeller, 24.

Mr. Zeller and his husband, Daniel, grew up in the church, and after years away, they had been mulling whether to attend services again. Although the Mormon Church has long opposed same-sex marriage, it had endorsed an anti-discrimination law in Utah and criticized a Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. But Mr. Zeller said the new policies were the end.

“I feel like if your name’s in the church, if you keep your name in the church, you’re supporting their decisions and the choices they’re making and their doctrine,” he said. “We don’t want to support them because they don’t support us.”

In explaining the policy changes, which appeared in a handbook sent out to congregation lay leaders, church officials said they needed to draw a line between civil laws that allow same-sex marriage and church doctrine, which does not.

It has been two years since Lydia Ojuka, 33, stopped attending services, and on Saturday, she found herself at the end of what she called a cascade of dominoes. While she still has two brothers who are active in the church, she, her boyfriend and her two children resigned on Saturday.

“I hoped that I could live harmoniously with the church even though I wasn’t a believer anymore,” she said. “But the stance and the retrenchment and the harm that is being done to people in this community is beyond what I can live with. I do feel like the church forced my hand.”

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