Excommunicated Mormon Says Church Can't Take Away Her Faith

Kathleen Kelly was excommunicated from the Mormon Church for advocating that women be ordained. Host Michel Martin speaks with Kelly about her cause and her future with the Church.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're starting the program today with a Faith Matters conversation. That's where we talk matters of faith, religion and spirituality. And today we are about to speak with a woman who is in a very public struggle with her church. Her name is Kathleen Kelly, she's known as Kate. And she is - or was - a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormon church. She is also the founder of Ordain Women. That's a group that promotes the ordination of women into the priesthood of the Mormon church. But on Monday, Kate Kelly was formally excommunicated. A letter to Kelly signed by the bishop of her local church, or stake, said this was due to quote, "conduct contrary to the laws in order of the church" unquote. This means that Kelly, a former missionary, may no longer take the sacrament, contribute tithes and offerings, wear temple garments, offer public prayer or vote for church officers. Kate Kelly is with us now from member station KUER in Salt Lake City, Utah to tell us more about her story. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.

KATE KELLY: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: It sounds like such a lame question but I wanted to ask, how are you? Is there some analogy you can draw upon that other people might recognize who haven't gone through something like this?

KELLY: It feels to me like I have been evicted from my spiritual home. I have been stripped of my citizenship which I have had since birth. And I have been forcibly drawn out of a circle and community that I love.

MARTIN: Very painful, in other words.

KELLY: Excruciatingly so.

MARTIN: Did you expect this?

KELLY: I didn't expect this. I think I am ever the optimist. I had hoped that they would do the right thing. I had hoped that there would be a place for dialogue about gender equality in our church. And I still have that hope in the future but this has been a major setback for me and my family.

MARTIN: For those who are not familiar with the church law regarding women in the priesthood, could you just describe exactly what it is that women are allowed to do and not allowed to do within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And as I understand it, women can serve as missionaries and they do have leadership positions. But what is it that they can do? What can't they do?

KELLY: In the Mormon church, women are given a lot of delegated duties but they are not allowed to oversee any of those roles. So for example, when I was a missionary, I was allowed to do the teaching and reaching out to people and contacting them and giving them, you know, a Book of Mormon but I wasn't allowed to baptize them and I wasn't allowed to be a leader in any sort of capacity. Those roles were all filled by my male counterparts. And in the Mormon church, all leadership is governed by the priesthood and all Mormon men have the priesthood. And we have a lay, rotating clergy. So the bishop who serves in my ward is a lawyer for Exxon. And you could have a plumber and a teacher and anyone who has any sort of other, you know, profession serves in that capacity on a rotating basis and it's a voluntary position. And so if women were to be ordained, this would affect not just a small handful of women, but over 7 million women and girls worldwide.

MARTIN: Why do you think this happened? Why do you think this got to this point? I mean, you are not the only person who has expressed the view that women should have the opportunity to serve in similar roles. Why you?

KELLY: The question of female ordination in the Mormon church is in some ways very new and in some ways has been going on for decades. There have been a very small handful of women who have been courageously speaking out and agitating on the question of female ordination. That group, since we founded Ordain Women and launched the website ordainwomen.org, has grown exponentially. Now, there are hundreds of Mormons publicly stating that they want women to be ordained and that's never ever been the case before. So we're at the very tip of the iceberg as far as this conversation goes within Mormonism. We've had purges before. So in the early '90s, there was a purge of six prominent Mormon intellectuals and several of them because they spoke out on gender equality issues.

MARTIN: The letter from the bishop - from your bishop, the bishop of your stake - says that 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 while remaining in full fellowship in the church. And I think he's referring to demonstrations, for example, right? That there were demonstrations outside of church meetings. And I don't know what else he's referring to but what about his point? i mean, his point is you have a right to free speech but we have a right to say that you cannot be considered one of us if you express those views publicly. What about that?

KELLY: I think the logic of the decision is extremely problematic because what essentially it threatens is not just one woman who started a group called Ordain Women, it threatens any Mormon person who has a question and wants to ask that question out loud. It's any Mormon person who wants to write a blog post about a concern that they have with doctrine or a sincere desire they have. It's extremely problematic for a person to be punished for having a viewpoint.

MARTIN: Is it that you had a viewpoint, though? Is it that you expressed your concerns outside of closed communication channels within the church? I mean, in part what they're saying is that this is a family matter and should have been handled within the family and you took this outside of the family.

KELLY: That's a disingenuous question because there is no way to handle it within the family. We've sent letters to the leaders of the church and they just get returned to our local leaders who have no control. Our local leaders can't ordain us or let us perform ordinances. It's very centrally controlled in Salt Lake City, Utah. And so it's very disingenuous for them to say, well, you should just continue this conversation in your own local congregation because that's not where the solution lies.

MARTIN: There is an appeals process. Is that something you're looking into?

KELLY: I intend to appeal. I have 30 days in which I can appeal. But even the disciplinary process in the Mormon church is very heavily weighted against women. For example, in my case, I was excommunicated by a bishop in my ward, which is my local congregation. But if I were a man, that would have to take place with a stake president who is over the regional area. And it would have to be done by a council of 15 people whereas in my case, it was handled by three people and is much, much less formal. So because I am a woman, they were able to, essentially, summarily dismiss me with very little fanfare.

MARTIN: Well, there is fanfare. There is fanfare now - I mean. And I wanted to ask you about that. What is this like for you to - and interesting, I also want to note that in the letter, the bishop says that he's urging you to repent. It says that you - that these penalties are generally imposed for a period of a year but if you repent and do not continue your actions - I assume he means your public advocacy - then you can be considered for re-admission. What about that? How do you respond to that?

KELLY: I have nothing to repent of. The only things I've done is live with integrity, tell the truth and ask sincere questions regarding gender equality with the church. I haven't preached any false doctrine. I've just made what is a factual assertion, which is men and women are not equal in our church.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Kate Kelly. She's founder of the group Ordain Women, which seeks the ordination of women within the church of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She was excommunicated this week for her public advocacy around this issue. Forgive me, I don't know you, but I can hear the emotion in your voice. I can tell that this is a very difficult experience for you. What is keeping you going?

KELLY: They have taken away my membership but they can't take away my faith in God. They can't take away my testimony. And they can't take away the feelings that I have and the tradition that I learned that I am a child of God just as any of my brothers are.

MARTIN: And what about your family? May I ask, how are they responding to this?

KELLY: My parents are also being targeted for discipline because they will not relinquish their support for me. They both have profiles on the ordainwomen.org site and they refuse to take them down. So it's a very, very difficult time for everyone in my family. It's almost as though we were being put through a community shunning on the neighborhood level and on the world-wide scale.

MARTIN: What's it like, though, for you day-to-day? I understand you recently moved back to Utah. So if you go to the store, are people mean to you? I mean, if you go to the grocery store are people mean to you? Do they not speak to you? What's it like?

KELLY: I am not used to being recognized on the street quite like I am now in Utah. But for the most part, the people that approach me are very kind, very open. Yesterday, a woman who was about 70 years old stopped me on the street and grabbed my shoulders and said, are you Kate? You are my hero. And I have been hoping for this my entire life. And that's what keeps me going.

MARTIN: In his letter, your bishop - the letter that he sent informing you of your excommunication he wrote, I urge you to continue to attend church, read the Scriptures and pray daily. Is that something you think you can do?

KELLY: That's something that he has no control over and something that I'll continue to do on my own accord because Mormonism doesn't wash off and it's not something they can take away from me.

MARTIN: I do have to ask you - and I apologize because I do understand that this question could give offense - but there are those who would hear your story and say, go somewhere else. I mean, why not join a denomination that would recognize women as priests and would offer them the opportunity for equal, you know, status in the clergy or just, you know, some people might say why not go and join one of those?

KELLY: I am very invested in the Mormon community and this isn't just about me. If it was just about me, I'm an adult. I'm an attorney. I could go on and live a very happy life. But this is bigger than me. This is bigger than the women who are engaged in this cause with me. I have a three-year-old niece who is growing up in the church and I think about her. And I think about the ways that she'll be effected by patriarchy and how it will change the way she sees herself. And so I'm doing this for her.

MARTIN: That was Kate Kelly, founder of the group, Ordain Women. And we reached her at member station KUER, which is in Salt Lake City, Utah. Kate Kelly, thanks so much for speaking with us.

KELLY: Thank you for having me.

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