Jan 17, 2015

Mormon Church Threatens Critic With Excommunication

January 15, 2015
The New York Times

Mormon leaders have moved to excommunicate the prominent founder of an online forum for questioning Mormons, charging him with apostasy for publicly supporting same-sex marriage and the ordination of women, and for challenging church teaching.
John P. Dehlin, 45, host of the “Mormon Stories” website and podcast — a hub of discussion for thousands of skeptical Mormons — said that his regional church leader confirmed on Wednesday that a disciplinary hearing had been scheduled for Jan. 25. Mr. Dehlin said he was told he would be disciplined and probably excommunicated if he refused to remove podcasts that are critical of the church and to disavow his support for women’s ordination and same-sex marriage.
“There’s no way I can agree to those terms,” he said in an interview from Logan, Utah. “I would prefer for them to leave me alone, but if given the choice between denying my conscience and facing excommunication, I’d much rather be excommunicated.”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, widely known as the Mormon Church, has in recent years been opening up and addressing sensitive questions about its history and theology, while simultaneously cracking down on members who publicly challenge church doctrine. The church claims 15 million members worldwide, six million of whom live in the United States.
The last year has brought a wave of excommunications, including that of Kate Kelly, a human rights lawyer who founded Ordain Women, a group that supports women joining the priesthood. She was excommunicated in June, and Mr. Dehlin was warned then of the charges against him. After the expulsion of Ms. Kelly created an uproar, the church held off on excommunicating Mr. Dehlin, even after issuing him an ultimatum in August. This was the third time he had been investigated in the last 10 years and threatened with disciplinary action, he said.
Eric Hawkins, a spokesman for the church in Salt Lake City, said, “We respect the privacy of individuals, and don’t publicly discuss the reasons why a member faces church discipline. Those reasons are provided to a member by their local church leaders.”
He added that Mr. Dehlin had received letters explaining the reasons for the disciplinary action against him.
The letters, which Mr. Dehlin has published online, are far more general than the specific list of accusations that Mr. Dehlin said he was given verbally in meetings with his regional leader, known as a stake president.
The threat of excommunication did not come as a surprise to Mr. Dehlin, who is a Ph.D. candidate in psychology and counseling at Utah State University, or his supporters. In recent years, he has become an increasingly vocal critic of the church’s prohibition on gay relationships and its opposition to same-sex marriage. He has conducted research on how church teachings have affected gay Mormons, and given a TED talk on being an ally to gay people.
Mr. Dehlin was working for Microsoft and serving as a volunteer religious schoolteacher in 2001 when he said he first stumbled across “troubling and hard to find historical facts” about the church and its teachings in the Book of Mormon and other scriptures.
He says he founded the “Mormon Stories” podcast in 2005 to explore those issues with others, and has posted hundreds of lengthy interviews with Mormon scholars, historians and key figures in church culture. Many of the podcasts have been downloaded as many as 50,000 times, and others twice that amount.
Jana Riess, a Mormon columnist at Religion News Service, said that Mr. Dehlin’s interviews included a broad spectrum of Mormons, including the orthodox, the curious, the doubters and the heretics — and that his following was similarly diverse.
“The church is trying to work out what is acceptable discourse. Obviously, this is the 21st century and there are now tens of thousands of people who are online discussing Mormonism every day, and some of the public comments are not orthodox,” Ms. Riess said. “The question becomes, how can you police that, or do you even try? I think this is something they are still working out.”
Critics of Mr. Dehlin say he has been courting excommunication for years by publicly disavowing some Mormon teachings. But the role he has played in modern church affairs is far more complex. He founded a website, staylds.com, as a forum to persuade doubters to remain in the church. In recent years, he said, he was asked to share data he had collected with church officials on Mormons who wrestle with doubts and how to retain them in the church.
But Scott Gordon, president of FairMormon, a group that defends the church, said that the likely reason Mr. Dehlin was facing excommunication is that he is a nonbeliever who advocates nonbelief.
“He wants to belong to the culture, to the community, but he doesn’t believe in the faith,” Mr. Gordon said.
Each time Mr. Dehlin has been under investigation, he has submitted letters from hundreds of Mormons who testified that he persuaded them to remain in the church. Some ex-Mormons shun Mr. Dehlin’s website for that very reason: They say it is geared too much toward persuading people to stay in the faith.

A version of this article appears in print on January 16, 2015, on page A20 of the New York edition with the headline: Mormon Church Threatens Critic With Excommunication.