I May Be Excommunicated from My Church for Asking for Equal Rights
On Sunday, I will be tried in absentia for apostasy by the leaders of my former congregation in the Mormon church. I face potential excommunication for the simple act of opening my mouth and starting a conversation about gender equality in the church and the deep roots of this institutional inequality.
My grave situation is another example of how silencing women has long been a top communications priority for patriarchical institutions, both literally and figuratively.
In the Mormon church, all positions of authority and leadership require ordination to the priesthood – and no women can be ordained, though the vast majority of male members, age 12 and up, are. This means that no women can lead any official rites and ceremonies, despite the fact that there is no specific Mormon church doctrine explaining why women are not ordained.
In early 2013 I felt inspired to create a movement seeking equality for and ordination to the priesthood for Mormon women. The backlash was fairly immediate from many more orthodox members of the church, but my congregation's leaders in northern Virginia said nothing to me for over a year.
Last month I moved away from Virginia and, after I left, I was placed on "informal probation" by my former local congregational leaders and can no longer participate in church activities in any congregation or church, regardless of where I go. One of the stipulations listed in the letter from my leaders is to literally keep my mouth shut. It says, "If you are invited to pray or read a passage or comment in a class or other Church meeting, you must decline." Under this directive, I am not even allowed to speak when spoken to in church. I am, however, encouraged to continue to tithe.
Being silenced this way feels as though a physical gag has been placed in my mouth each Sunday, and the pain of knowing my feelings and ideas are unwelcome is sharp. I am deeply saddened that my beloved church is considering forcibly ejecting me for living out what I was taught in a primary song as a child: "do what is right, let the consequence follow".
Religious women with concerns about gender inequality, like myself, are faithful people, yet we have earnest questions. Our voices speak words of concern with love. Far from being censured, the valid questions we are asking should be taken seriously at the highest levels of our institutions, no matter what creed or faith. After all, women make up at least one half of all church membership worldwide.
For me it is because of my faith – and not in spite of it – that I have a desire to stand up for myself and my sisters. I have been taught a vision of a truly cooperative future where men and women are complete equals.
In fact, Mormon doctrine teaches that we have Heavenly Parents: Motherand Father. As Mormon poetess and pioneer Eliza R Snow wrote in acherished Mormon hymn:
In the heav'ns are parents single?
No, the thought makes reason stare!
Truth is reason; truth eternal
Tells me I've a mother there.
Knowing that our Heavenly Parents are both male and female teaches me that our potential as women is limitless. However, I do not see that eternal equality reflected in the contemporary church.
In my professional work as a human rights attorney, I have had the great honor of working with courageous women from all around the world. From Western Sahara to Cuba to Zimbabwe, I have been inspired by courageous women of all faiths, who face great consequences – many far greater than I do – for pursuing equality in and outside of their faith traditions. They have taught me that there is no reason that our churches, mosques and synagogues should be the last bastion of sexism in the world.
Because of them, I can more clearly see the face of God, and she is beautiful.
Significant, worldwide progress to achieve gender equality necessitates progression from inside every religious tradition, because injustice and discrimination inside our faiths hurts all of us, not just the women in those faiths.
But while religion can be – and has been – used to perpetuate insidious discrimination, it has also been a motivation for many courageous people to seek social justice throughout history. Religion can – and should – be a catalyst for good. It can encourage men and women to re-think outdated gender roles and help us all become more accepting and inclusive.
Changes and reforms within faith traditions ought to come from inside our organizations. Women like me are asking heartfelt questions and seeking to improve the churches that we love. Instead of being punished for speaking out, we need to be listened to and taken seriously.
Every institution can benefit from greater participation from one half of its body. To remain relevant in today's world, religious institutions will thrive by tackling tough questions of gender equality, engaging with concerned women and helping move us all forward, together.
We will be reverent and we will be respectful – but we will not be silenced.