More than 2,500 Mormons in Utah are quitting the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) en masse over its controversial new ban on baptizing the children of gay parents, a lawyer who is helping with the effort said Monday.
The mass resignations and protests followed LDS's decision earlier this month to add same-sex marriage to a list of acts in a handbook that are deemed to be a renunciation of the faith, which means that same-sex couples are subject to discipline or even excommunication. (Homosexual attraction is not itself a sin in the eyes of the church. Acting on it is subject to church discipline, though active homosexuals are not barred from worship services.) The new policy also dictates that children of gay parents cannot be blessed or baptized in the faith until they first reach adulthood at the age of 18. They also have to leave the home of their gay parents and renounce same-sex marriage or cohabitation before being accepted into the church.
LDS later clarified that the policy would not affect the membership of those children who have already been baptized.
Those who are now looking to leave LDS, which is comprised of more than 15 million adherents across the world, regard the new policy as discriminatory and its extension to the children of same-sex parents as destructive to family values.
Since Thursday, Salt Lake City-based attorney Mark Naugle has been working "almost full time" and pro bono to help people submit their letter of resignation at mass resignation rallies and from his law office, where he usually practices immigration law.
"I used to be LDS, but my family left when I was 15, so I know what it's like and how difficult it can be to get out of the church," he told VICE News.
Naugle said that his father, who died on Sunday, led his family away from the church after researching its doctrine and concluding that "it wasn't everything it was made out to be."
"Before he passed he said he was really happy with the work we're doing," Naugle said.
In Utah, which is close to 60 percent Mormon and where the church maintains a strong influence on society and politics, children of gay parents have expressed their disappointment at being shut out of the church.
One of them, 17-year-old Francisco Negron, was expecting to serve alongside some 85,000 Mormon missionaries around the world after graduating from high school. But this plan has now been hampered because he would have to first renounce his relationship with his father, who is gay and is now living with a same-sex partner after divorcing his wife.
"In order to go on that mission of service and love, to tell my father that I did not approve of him, seemed kind of hypocritical to me," Negron told KIVI-TV.
His mother, Kristine Ellis, who previously served on a mission for the church, is among the thousands who have submitted their resignation letters to the church this week.
Meanwhile, Mormons, former Mormons, and members of the LGBT community have protested the church's decision at various rallies. Over the weekend, some 1,000 demonstrators gathering outside the headquarters of LDS in Salt Lake City bearing LGBT flags and banners with slogans denouncing the church.
"It is difficult for people to leave the church. It takes people a long time to make this decision. It is a well-thought-out one and it is not taken lightly," one of the protest organizers, Brooke Swallow, told Reuters. "The people in the Mormon Church are finding that this is not a Christ-centered policy. This is a policy that is about the people at the top, and their views and prejudices, and they are not thinking through what this will do long-term to families."
Another demonstration dubbed "The Utah Rally for Love, Equality, Family, and Acceptance" has been organized for next Saturday in the same area.
On Saturday, Naugle held a separate mass resignation event that drew hundreds of attendees. He has already organized another event in City Creek Park this coming weekend, where he will have blank resignation forms on hand for Mormon attendees to fill out.
A website called MormonResignation.com has also been set up to assist members with the lengthy "name removal" or "resignation" process, and offers sample letters to help people scrub their names from all active records with the Mormon church and prevent further communication.
"Having your name removed from the records of the Mormon Church can be a very emotional experience," the website homepage reads. "It can affect your family, your job (if you work for the Mormon Church), your friends or even your spouse (if your spouse is Mormon). If you currently attend Brigham Young University, or another Mormon Church-owned University, you could lose your accreditation and be expelled. There are many who have been unable to receive their diplomas or even their credit transcripts after having their names removed."
Naugle said that in many cases resigning members will receive a letter back from the church saying that the removal is a local ecclesiastical matter to be dealt with by the local bishop.
"Often that bishop will then show up at your door and try and talk you out of it," he said, "or make it very difficult for you and your family to leave."
Part of Naugle's effort has involved helping people prepare a simple resignation letter and a limited power of attorney stipulating that the church is to refer any and all questions to the lawyer. He hasn't received a single response from the church to the hundreds of letters sent out so far, he said.
"We don't want to see anyone leave the church, especially people who have been struggling with any aspect of their life," LDS spokesperson Eric Hawkins said in a statement. "It's extremely important that our members read what leaders have said, and do not rely on other sources or interpretations or what people think they have said."
But earlier this month, D. Todd Christofferson, one of the church's elders, doubled down on its policy on same-sex marriage, describing it as "a particularly grievous or significant, serious kind of sin that requires church discipline."
"We recognize that same-sex marriages are now legal in the United States and some other countries and that people have the right, if they choose, to enter into those, and we understand that," Christofferson said in a video interview released by the church. "But that is not a right that exists in the church."
The latest controversy over gay marriage in the state comes days after a Utah judge ordered a child be removed from the custody of her lesbian foster parents. At the time, the judge said that research showed that children raised by homosexual couples are worse off than those raised by heterosexual couples. The foster parents said that when they asked him to cite the studies supporting his decision, he declined to answer.
Activists vehemently protested the decision, and cited research showing that the sexual orientation of same-sex parents has no effect on the well-being of a child. In 2004, the American Psychological Association said that gay parents are just as likely as heterosexual parents to "provide supportive and healthy environments for their children."
On Friday the judge changed his mind and allowed the baby to stay with her foster parents.
Naugle said that the "vast majority" of the 2,500 people he is helping resign from the church "are people who are already disaffected and who already had problems with its policies."
"A lot of people went inactive after Prop 8," he said, referring to the 2008 campaign that overturned a California Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage. "This latest policy was the last straw for them."
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