SALT LAKE CITY – The Mormon church excommunicated the founder of a prominent women's group Monday, a rare move that brings down the harshest punishment available on an adherent who created an organization and staged demonstrations in a push for women to join the faith's priesthood.
The ousting of Kate Kelly marks one of the most significant excommunications in recent church history and sends a stern warning to others publicly challenging church practice and forming groups around their cause, scholars who study Mormonism say.
Excommunication is not common in the Mormon faith. Nobody has solid numbers on how many church members are ousted each year, but it is probably between 10,000 to 20,000, a fraction of the 15 million members worldwide, said Matt Martinich, a church member who analyzes membership numbers with the nonprofit Cumorah Foundation.
Kelly's former church leaders in Virginia notified her by email after holding a disciplinary hearing Sunday and weighing the matter overnight. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints found her guilty of apostasy, defined as repeated and public advocacy of positions that oppose church teachings.
Kelly called the decision "exceptionally painful."
"Today is a tragic day for my family and me as we process the many ways this will impact us, both in this life and in the eternities," she said in a statement.
Church officials had no immediate comment Monday. Kelly's group, Ordain Women, announced the decision Monday.
Debra Jenson, a spokeswoman for Ordain Women, said the group is saddened but will continue to advocate.
Kelly did not attend the disciplinary hearing but sent about 1,000 letters on her behalf and held a vigil Sunday with about 200 supporters in Salt Lake City.
Kelly was one of two well-known Mormons facing excommunication. John Dehlin, an outspoken advocate for gays and the creator of a website that provides a forum for church members questioning their faith, has a meeting with his stake president in Logan on June 29 to discuss his case.
Scholars who study the religion say they are the most high-profile examples of excommunication proceedings since 1993. That year, the church disciplined six Mormon writers who questioned church doctrine, ousting five and kicking out a sixth temporarily.
Jan Shipps, a retired religion professor from Indiana who is a non-Mormon expert on the church, said church leaders are practicing "boundary maintenance," using Kelly and Dehlin as examples to show people how far they can go in questioning church practices.
Shipps said she wasn't surprised that Kelly was ousted, considering Kelly chose not to attend the hearing or show contriteness.
"It does more than excommunicate Kelly," Shipps said of the decision. "It warns everybody."
Kelly said she stands behind everything she has done since forming Ordain Women in 2013. The group advocates for gender equality in the faith, with the ultimate goal of allowing women in the lay clergy. Kelly insists that she has not spoken out against church leaders or church doctrine.
Women can hold many leadership positions in church, but aren't allowed to be bishops of congregations or presidents of stakes. Stakes are made up of up to a dozen congregations, known as wards. The church's highest leaders, called the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, are also all men.
The church says only men serve in the lay clergy as prescribed in "the pattern set by the Savior when it comes to priesthood ordination."
Mormon officials haven't discussed Kelly's case specifically. They have said they are open to questions and sincere conversations about the faith, but that some members' actions "contradict church doctrine and lead others astray."
"In the Church, we want everyone to feel welcome, safe and valued, and of course, there is room to ask questions," church spokeswoman Ally Isom said. "But how we ask is just as important as what we ask. We should not try to dictate to God what is right for his Church."
Kelly's group drew rebukes from church leaders in April when they marched on church property in downtown Salt Lake City's Temple Square. The women asked to be allowed in a meeting reserved for members of the priesthood, which includes most males in the church who are 12 and older. Church leaders had previously told the group they wouldn't be let in and warned them not to disturb the faith's biannual general conference that weekend.