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‘They’ve Kicked Me Out of Heaven’: Meet Kate Kelly, the Mormon Feminist Who Was Excommunicated by Her Church

A growing number of Mormons want the church to be more inclusive to women and LGBT members, and are challenging it accordingly.

by Mary Emily O'Hara
Jun 25 2014, 4:30pm

Photo via AP/Rick Bowmer

On Monday, a prominent Mormon feminist was excommunicated “for conduct contrary to the laws and order” of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Church officials had warned Kate Kelly, co-founder of a group called Ordain Women, of an investigation into her activism and the possibility of disciplinary action. She was hardly alone in her campaign for gender equality within the church and for the ordination of women as priests. There is a growing movement of Mormons who love their church but want it to be more inclusive to women and LGBT members, and who are challenging the church accordingly.

Other Mormon feminist organizations where advocates connect and organize include Women Advocating for Voice and Equality, “I’m a Mormon Feminist,” and Young Mormon Feminists.

“The difficulty, Sister Kelly, is not that you say you have questions or even that you believe women should receive the priesthood,” Bishop Mark Harrison wrote in Kelly’s letter of excommunication. “The problem is that you have persisted in an aggressive effort to persuade other Church members to your point of view and that your course of action has threatened to erode the faith of others. You are entitled to your views, but you are not entitled to promote them and proselyte others to them.”

A disciplinary council composed of Bishop Harrison and his two male counselors made the decision to excommunicate her. No other members of Ordain Women have been excommunicated.

Groups like Strangers in Zion are protesting Kelly’s excommunication and the repression of other progressives like “Mormon Stories” podcast host John Dehlin, who has discussed contentious issues such as gay rights. Dehlin himself faces allegations of apostasy and possible excommunication. Strangers in Zion is encouraging LDS members to request their own disciplinary councils from church leaders as an expression of support for progressive advocates.

VICE News spoke with Kate Kelly the day after she was excommunicated.

VICE News: What are the events that led up to this moment? Tell us about your work with Ordain Women and when you began advocating for gender equality in the church.
Kate Kelly: I’m an international human rights attorney and was doing work with men and women all over the world. My clients were in Zimbabwe and Western Sahara and Cuba and Peru, and I came to a point in January last year when frankly I just felt like a hypocrite. I was doing this work in different places but I realized I wasn’t standing up for myself and the people I most loved, the people surrounding me in my immediate community. So I said, I’ve got to do something about this. I called and researched people who had written about ordination of women in the church and I got a group of women together and we decided to commit ourselves to direct action. I’m an activist in other ways in my life, and I was very committed to the idea of bringing direct action in a Mormon context.

We launched the website on March 2013. It features profiles and testimonials of Mormon men and women who want the priesthood for women, female ordination. We also have a Facebook page, Twitter account, Pinterest. Mormon women really love Pinterest for some reason.

How does the ordination of women play into the deeper gender inequality in the Mormon community you hope to change?
We want full equality and ordination. Total parity is our goal. The way the Mormon Church hierarchy is structured, you have to be ordained to the priesthood to have any leadership capacity, to perform ordinances, to participate in rites — that kind of thing. That’s why we’re focusing on the ordination of women.

Tell us about your excommunication.
On Monday I was informed by my church that the result of a trial for the charge of apostasy was returned against me and I was excommunicated from the Church of Latter-Day Saints. I was sent a letter that lists all the restrictions. I’m no longer a member of the church, I cannot participate in any local congregation, I can’t have an assignment within the church, I can’t pray out loud, I can’t tithe, I can’t go to the temple — I basically can’t do anything Mormons do. Aside from all of those day-to-day things that I’ve now been barred from doing, all of the ordinances that have been performed are now null. My baptism is canceled. My marriage is canceled. All of the ordinances that have been performed throughout my lifetime are now void. It’s hard to understand, but in Mormonism we believe that marriages are eternal, so you’re with your husband not only in this life but also in heaven. Essentially what they’ve done is, they’ve not only kicked me out of church, they’ve also kicked me out of heaven. If I had children, we would no longer be together in heaven. My parents are also now being targeted for continuing to support me.

Is your excommunication essentially a warning to other Mormon progressives to not to speak out publicly against the church?
I think the church is trying to scare people away from asking questions out loud, particularly women. I don’t think that’s going to be successful. Mormon women are getting much bolder. We have more courage than we used to. We’re extremely talented and extremely capable, so even though that’s what they’re attempting to do, I don’t think it’s going to be successful.

When did your work first begin to receive opposition from church leaders?
Right away. When we launched the website we got pushback from a lot of average Mormons. I received my notice that I was put on what’s called informal probation, which is like the precursor to excommunication, on May 22. And it said that the trial would be held on June 8.

Is there a long tradition of women fighting for equality in the Mormon church? Have many been excommunicated?It goes in waves. The last big wave — or what people call “the purge” — was in 1993, and it was a group of people called the September Six. Some of them were excommunicated for the exact same thing we’re doing, for speaking out in favor of gender equality. The actual excommunication is carried out on the local level…. September Six was the last time it was a real attack on a specific group of people. I think this is sort of a repetition of that history. Really, this is a 15th Century solution to a 21st Century problem.

What happens now? How will you continue to exercise your faith outside of the church now that you’ve been excommunicated?
I do not acknowledge that God recognizes this decision. I don’t think that I’m not going to be in heaven with my family. I don’t think these men have control over that. But as far as my everyday worship, it’s going to be severely impacted and limited. I’m now seen as a complete outsider in the community, so it’s going to very, very negatively impact my everyday worship. Honestly, I don’t know… it’s only been 24 hours! I don’t know what the future holds. Yesterday was awful. I felt very dejected. I felt like when I was telling people what was happening to me, I was telling them about a dead person. But that person was me. And I’m still here.

Follow Mary Emily O’Hara on Twitter: @maryemilyohara