SALT LAKE CITY – The decision by the Mormon church to excommunicate the founder of a prominent women's group marks a stern statement at a time when the church is under pressure to recognize gay rights and allow women into the priesthood.
Experts believe the move essentially draws a line in the sand to show church members how far they can go in publicly questioning church practices.
The ousting of Kate Kelly is rare and brings down the harshest punishment available on a church member who created an organization and staged demonstrations in a push to permit women to join the faith's lay clergy.
"It does more than excommunicate Kelly," said Jan Shipps, a retired religion professor from Indiana who is a non-Mormon expert on the church. "It warns everybody."
Shipps said The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is implementing "boundary maintenance," using Kelly as an example to show people how far they can go in questioning church practices.
The message seems to be that "organizing pressure groups, and trying to cultivate a following for such groups, crosses a line that will trigger disciplinary action," said Armand Mauss, a retired professor of sociology and religious studies at Washington State University.
Church officials had no immediate comment Monday.
Kelly's former church leaders in Virginia notified her by email after holding a disciplinary hearing Sunday. They found her guilty of apostasy, defined as repeated and public advocacy of positions that oppose church teachings.
Kelly's group, Ordain Women, announced the decision Monday and released excerpts from the letter she received.
Church leaders said she can longer wear Mormon temple garments, hold positions in church or give talks during services, among other things. After one year, they will consider allowing her back, but only if she displays "true repentance" and shows she has "stopped teachings and actions that undermine the church, its leaders, and the doctrine of the priesthood," the letter says.
Kelly wasn't immediately available for comment but called the decision "exceptionally painful" and a "tragic day" for her family in an emailed statement.
She didn't attend the disciplinary hearing Sunday, instead holding a vigil in Salt Lake City with about 200 supporters. She spoke about the possibility of not being able to fully practice the religion she's been part of since birth.
"I'm just not sure that there is something you can do to prepare yourself for a shunning like that," she said.
Excommunication is not common in the Mormon faith, reserved usually for cases where members violate the religion's moral code by having affairs, being charged criminally or committing sexual abuse, said Patrick Mason, chairman of the religion department and professor of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University in California. Church members being kicked out for apostasy is quite rare, he said.
Nobody has solid numbers on how many church members are ousted each year, but it is probably between 10,000 and 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.
Debra Jenson, a spokeswoman for Ordain Women, said the group is saddened but will continue to advocate. Kelly also plans to be part of the movement and work for gender equality in the church.
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 a church leader in Logan on June 29 to discuss his case.
Scholars 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.
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."
The church doesn't usually discipline people who question or disagree with church doctrine or practices — thousands express such views online every day, Mason said. But the church seemed to take umbrage with the way Kelly created a movement and courted media coverage for her demonstrations, the professor said.
"It's not about policing thoughts, it's more about public expressions and public movements," Mason said.
Kelly said she stands behind everything she has done since forming Ordain Women in 2013.
Women can hold many leadership positions in church but aren't allowed to be bishops of congregations or regional presidents of stakes, which are made up of 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."
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