SALT LAKE CITY – New Mormon church rules targeting gay members and their children have triggered a firestorm of backlash from church members of all political backgrounds.
Mormon scholar Patrick Mason said the symbolism of targeting kids has riled up even conservative, orthodox Latter-day Saints who don't usually get on the LGBT bandwagon or question church decisions.
Under the new rules, issued last week, children living with gay parents are barred from being baptized until they're 18. After that, they can be baptized only if they disavow same-sex relationships.
The policy also makes gay marriages a sin worthy of expulsion. It marked a dramatic detour from the religion's recent push to carve out a more compassionate stance on LGBT issues.
"The surprising impact has been the amount of people who are confused and troubled and disturbed and, frankly, repulsed," said Mason, associate professor of religion at Claremont Graduate University in California and Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies. "And these aren't just progressives and LGBT advocates. ... They are saying: 'This doesn't feel right. This doesn't square with me.'"
He said the furious blowback is leading to widespread speculation that church leaders are working on revisions to the policy, which was leaked to the public after being emailed to local church leaders around the world.
Because the rules were made in the church handbook, and not considered doctrinal change, Mormon leaders have wiggle room if they choose to revise them.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints spokesman Eric Hawkins didn't immediately have any comment on the speculation.
The new policy probably directly affects only a small number of Mormon families because not many same-sex couples with children are active in the church, Mason said. But it also could impact children who have one gay parent.
Mason said one possibility for revisions would be to address rules for children with only one gay parent, perhaps those with parents who are divorced. In past generations, many gay Mormon men married women at the encouragement of church leaders as a way to overcome what the religion calls "same-sex attraction."
For the past several years, the church has tried to walk a delicate tightrope of becoming more gay-friendly while holding onto its belief that God intended marriage to be exclusively between a man and a woman. Leaders gave multiple speeches preaching a "fairness for all" approach that encourages compassion for gays while protecting religious liberties.
The church backed a landmark Utah state law passed this year that added anti-discrimination protection for LGBT people while shielding religious rights.
Members had bought into the new message of compassion and begun putting those lessons into action, Mason said. He called the rules the most damaging public relations move by the church since it urged members in 2008 to bankroll and support California's gay marriage ban.
Church leaders said the changes were designed to reiterate the conservative faith's doctrinal opposition to gay marriage and provide clarity to lay leaders around the globe asking questions after last summer's U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriages. The revisions also allow children of gay parents the chance to mature before making a decision about whether to fully invest in a faith that shuns their parents' sexuality.
"We don't want the child to have to deal with issues that might arise where the parents feel one way and the expectations of the church are very different," D. Todd Christofferson, a member of the faith's Quorum of the Twelve governing body, said in a video explaining the changes.
Blake Atkin, an attorney from Clifton, Idaho, is among those who support the new rules. He said he knows with certainty that Jesus Christ loves all people, including gays, but he doesn't know why LGBT people would want to stay in the religion if they've gone as far as to get married.
"If you disagree with one of the fundamental principles of the gospel, the only reason you would remain a member of the church is to be actively trying to get headlines to get the church to change policies," Atkin said.
Even though the church considers homosexual relationships a sin, many LGBT Mormons try to stay active in the faith because they cherish its other teachings and are deeply rooted in a culture where Mormonism is the focal point for most friendships and social activities.
The vibrant world of Mormon websites and social media sites have been buzzing as Latter-day Saints digested and dissected the new rules. At Sunday worship services, people discussed the changes, with many offering their condolences to families of gay Mormons.
On Monday, a prominent Utah LGBT group hosted a "Family Homo Evening," a play on the Mormon ritual of family home nights where gay-supporting Mormons gathered to show solidarity. One group called on guest performers scheduled to join the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's Christmas concerts to boycott the event. Another group is organizing a "mass resignation" for Mormons on Saturday in Salt Lake City.
"This policy has reopened a lot of wounds that we've been trying to heal," said Troy Williams, a gay man and former Mormon who serves as executive director of a prominent Utah LGTB group called Equality Utah. "This is a massive step backward."