NAME & SHAME—The Excommunication of Mormon Feminist Kate Kelly

June 30, 2014

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints excommunicated Kate Kelly, the founder of a movement called “Ordain Women,” which has urged the Church through public advocacy and protests  to reconsider its stance denying women the priesthood. I think Kelly’s strategy of naming and shaming the Church is important and I hope that she and her colleagues are successful in changing the Church’s policy regarding an all-male priesthood because allowing gender discrimination in a private, voluntary organization like the Church can have enormous consequences on society as a whole.

The All-Male Priesthood

Church members believe the priesthood is the authority to act on god’s behalf. Currently, only male members of the Church are ordained to the priesthood. All male members may receive the priesthood when they turn 12 years old—the priesthood is not held exclusively by clergy. In fact, there is no professional clergy; all pastoral functions are exercised by lay members who volunteer their time to the Church. Some lay members hold clerical positions in their local churches and others hold leadership positions over the entire Church and are based in Salt Lake City, Utah, the Church’s headquarters.

Kelly, according to the Church, “persisted in an aggressive effort to persuade other Church members to [her] point of view.” Her actions, stated the written decision of the Church “Council” held to make a determination on whether she should be disciplined, could “erode the faith of others” and she took those actions despite the attempts of her male ecclesiastical leaders to dissuade her. For these reasons, the Church excommunicated her.

Apostate Kelly

Among bloggers and commentators who consider themselves orthodox members of the Church, Kate Kelly is an “apostate” because she challenged church doctrine, i.e., the priesthood as an exclusively male privilege, in a way that was very public, organized, and openly challenged the authority of the church’s male leaders. They suggest that many Church members may question Church teachings but that such doubts should be expressed privately. The sin in what Kelly did was to intentionally call attention to a divisive issue within the church and to organize others to follow her.

Name and Shame the Church?

It is not surprising that Kelly, a human rights lawyer, chose this public method to resolve the unequal treatment of women and girls within the church. Human rights advocates have long engaged in “Naming and Shaming” as an advocacy tool. “Naming and Shaming” seeks to investigate and document human rights abuses committed by governments or organizations, and publicly air the abuses to exert pressure on the government or organization. The shaming then will hopefully result in the government’s or organization’s stopping the practice and holding the abusers accountable.

In a Salt Lake Tribune Op-Ed, Ashley Isaacson Woolley wrote that she found Kate Kelly’s methods inappropriate for an issue that is not in the public square. While she believes that organizing and agitating for change is appropriate in a “civil rights campaign” it is not appropriate for “advancing personal views” in a voluntary association like the Church.I have observed a variation of this sentiment in comment sections, and on social media. Church members believe that the president of the Church is a prophet and that he, along with twelve apostles, receive revelation from and act in god’s name with respect to the Church. When the prophet or the apostles speak they are speaking on god’s behalf and faithful members are expected to submit themselves to their direction. Thus, the solution for Kelly would be to leave the Church rather than try to change the Church. One of the comments on the Ordain Women’s Facebook page reflects this view: “If you believe the Church is true then you’ll believe the principles and doctrines. If you don’t then there’s the door…”

Yes, Name and Shame the Church

There are several reasons why Kelly is not wrong to think that naming and shaming could be an effective device to address the inequality of women within a religious organization. First, a 2008 study on the efficacy of naming and shaming showed that the tool was more successful in getting governments to improve protection for political rights rather than addressing acts of “political terrorism.”  In a religious organization, the priesthood is an apt equivalent of a “political right” since it relates to status and participation within the religion. Second, LGBTQ individuals and allies have successfully advocated for changes in religious policies in recent months and years. Two of the most recent have been the reinstatement of a Methodist minister who had been defrocked for performing his son’s same-sex marriage ceremony, and the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA’s vote to “tentatively” define marriage as between “two people.” Third, the Church itself has changed its doctrine in response to social pressure in the past. Two prime examples are its changed positions on polygamy,on the ability of black men of African descent to hold the priesthood, and the ban on black men and women from participating in the Church’s temple ordinances. Since the post-Prop 8 backlash, the Church has also softened its stance on LGBTQ members.

As the eldest of ten children (eight of whom are male) in a Mormon family, I relate to the feelings of being less than or unequal due to my gender. I watched as my younger brothers were able to participate in Boy Scout activities, an organization that has significant support from the LDS church. The Girl Scouts receive no such support. At the age of 12, my brothers received the priesthood and were able to distribute the sacrament (the term Mormons use to refer to the equivalent of the Eucharist)during Sunday Services, and at the age of 16, they were able to bless the sacrament. No equivalent liturgical role is provided young women. Each Sunday, the three men who presided over my local church services sat on the dais at the front of the chapel. I equated men with power and privilege.

Though I am no longer a member of the Church in which I was raised, my upbringing was Mormon and much of my family is still observant. Unlike Kate Kelly and other practicing Mormon feminists, the religion no longer has meaning for me and so I chose to leave. Nonetheless, I think Kelly’s strategy of naming and shaming is important and I hope that she and her colleagues are successful in changing the Church’s policy regarding an all-male priesthood because allowing gender discrimination in a private, voluntary organization like the Church can have enormous consequences on society as a whole.

The policy of a male priesthood is based on a binary view of gender that stereotypes men and women—men are breadwinners and women are nurturers. Further, it limits the “leadership roles” allowed women in the church to those involving only children and other women. This can’t help but normalize these roles and inculcate a message of women as incapable of full leadership and unable to exercise real authority. Given the role that churches play in shaping cultural values—a majority of Americans say religion is very important to them—those of us who want to end structural inequality in our workplaces and political institutions, regardless of our religious affiliation, need to be concerned about the unequal treatment of women in private, religious organizations.

Author Description

Professor Angela Morrison

Professor Morrison, a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Immigration Clinic at UNLV's Boyd School of Law, was previously the Legal Director of the Nevada Immigrant Resource Project (NIRP) at Boyd. As director of NIRP, she conducted outreach on immigration-related issues to community partners, immigrant communities, and governmental organizations. Prior to directing NIRP, Professor Morrison worked for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) where she was the first EEOC trial attorney in Las Vegas.