Beliefs Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Mormon leaders soften policy on same-sex families, but controversy continues

Yesterday, the LDS First Presidency released an official clarification of its recently revised policy concerning same-sex marriage. Here is the letter that went out to local and general Mormon leaders:

11.13.15 Revised LDS policy same-sex marriageAnd here is part of the written policy as of November 5:

11.5.15 LDS policy same-sexIn my reading of these documents, two changes appear to either nullify or limit the scope of the policy as originally written.

  1. Children who are already baptized in the LDS Church will not have their ordination, mission service, etc. affected going forward. In the original policy, all children with a parent in a same-sex marriage would have had to wait until age eighteen to receive any ordinance of the church, and even then only with the express permission of the First Presidency. In contrast, yesterday’s revision states that “When a child living with a same-gender couple has already been baptized and is actively participating in the Church, provisions of Section 16.13 do not require that his or her membership activities or priesthood privileges be curtailed or that further ordinances be withheld.” It also leaves such decisions in the hands of local leaders.
  2. The clarification states that a child’s “primary residence” must be with a same-sex couple in order for the restriction to apply. The original policy as written appeared to affect any “child of a parent who has lived or is living in a same-gender relationship.” Many critics rightly raised questions about this: Would a child be prohibited if a parent had lived with someone of the same sex years ago, but was not doing so currently? Would it apply if a child spent only weekends with a parent who was in a same-sex marriage, but spent the rest of his or her time living with a parent in a heterosexual marriage? Yesterday’s letter states that the policy applies “only to those children whose primary residence is with a couple living in a same-gender marriage or similar relationship.” There are still major questions here, particularly given the 50-50 joint custody agreements that are often the norm today, but it’s an improvement.

What happened with this clarification on Friday is almost exactly what attorney Kevin Barney predicted in an excellent By Common Consent post the day before on “bright line” rules vs. general guidelines that allow for local variation:

It has been rumored that the PTB are looking into revising the proposed rule in some way given the massive uproar of disapproval it has received. Simply scuttling the rule altogether would be my preference and might be the simplest and most effective course, but I suspect that as a face-saving gesture they will want to keep some sort of a rule in place. But given the myriad land mines with this rule as drafted, it would be almost impossible to simply amend the rule and resolve all the problems if they insist on keeping it as a bright-line standard. I believe their best shot at amending the rule in a way that the membership will accept would be to avoid framing it as a bright-line rule where there is no discretion whatsoever for particular circumstances.

With yesterday’s clarification, a much smaller group of Mormon children are going to be affected. It now only pertains to kids who have not already been baptized and are residing most of the time with a parent who is currently living in a same-sex marriage or relationship.

This is a start, but it’s not enough. As one BCC commenter said, “So what this clarification does is narrow the group of innocent children to which the unchristian new policies may apply. Sorry. Not impressed.”

That about sums it up for me too. Just because we are barring fewer children doesn’t mean it was ever right to bar children at all.

Not to mention that being in a same-sex marriage is now considered “apostasy” in the Handbook, and yesterday’s clarification did nothing to change that. Apostasy mandates a church disciplinary council, while offenses such as “attempted murder, forcible rape, sexual abuse, spouse abuse, intentional serious physical injury of others, adultery, fornication, homosexual relations (especially sexual cohabitation), [and] deliberate abandonment of family responsibilities” are only conditions for which a disciplinary council may be necessary.

So if you’re gay, get married, and love one person faithfully for the rest of your life, that’s apparently worse than being a rapist, murderer, adulterer, pedophile, or abuser.

That is plum crazy in my book.

I am glad, however, that yesterday’s clarifications about children mean that the Paquette family I profiled on Tuesday — whose twelve-year-old son was told he was ineligible for his upcoming priesthood ordination because his mother is living with a woman — is off the hook. As of last night, Alyssa Paquette had not spoken to their bishop about the change, but “this document makes it pretty clear that my stepson is eligible for ordination.”

But the boy is not unscathed by the events of this last week, and Paquette is not certain he wants to be ordained anymore. This whole fiasco has been sobering, and the Paquettes are mindful of the fact that while they are now free of the policy’s effects, “many families will still be negatively impacted . . . and [they] are no less important than our family.”


About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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  • You know how, when you get slapped in the face, the sting and redness lasts for some time afterwards? After the apology, after the hug? That’s how this feels. It will take a long time for me to look at the First Presidency quite the same way as I did before November 6, 2015.

  • Let me say that I have been an active member for many years and will continue to be a member. That said, the clarification helps but does not go far enough. Nothing short of a complete reversal will do for me. The policy is misguided and wrong. The church is quite stubborn on things like this so I do not see that happening. On social media many members are rejoicing because of their conservative views. That sickens me.

  • Jana,
    What is interesting to note is what this “clarification” will spark in the long-run. Yes, many members are leaving, and so many others will fade out as time passes, but what about the future divorces and custody battles between parents? The Church has effectively tied their own hands in those situations. Let me clarify (ha):
    Say a married man and a woman decide to divorce, and one parent is gay or lesbian. Local Church leaders will be pulled into these custody battles, preventing the lesbian or gay individual from having any kind of custody. REGARDLESS of what kind of parent, how good or abusive, the straight parent is. Far-fetched? Hardly. The Church will have to side with that parent. Their hands are now tied with this policy. This has the potential of becoming a thorn in the side of leaders, and this attempt at protecting Church interests (because, come on, that’s what this move is about) will end up biting them in the butt in the end.

  • CG, you bring up a good point. What I am surprised by is they didn’t think any of these things through in advance before changing the policy. I would of hoped they had a very long discussion, prayed, spoke to women leaders, etc. That does not seem to be the case.

  • I am thankful for prophets and apostles that speak with the savior. I can see the love they have for those struggling by the constantly coming to the table and explaining the doctrine in thoughtful ways. The lord has a pattern of asking hard things of his people and this fits the pattern. I am thankful for the established pattern of church organization that guides revelation. I know the doctrine of the family as taught by the church to be the best method of finding salvation. God bless thomas s monson, and his councilors for their selfless service.

  • The most recent letter clarifying the policy is not at all clear about the requirements for an 18+-year old who wants to become a full-time missionary. The letter states that “the provisions of Section 16.13 do not require that membership activities … priesthood privileges … further ordinances be withheld” for children who are already baptized and actively participating in the Church. Does this apply to missionary service? Does it apply to the requirement to “disavow …”? Can such a person reside with their parent who is in a same-sex relationship? I will be waiting for further clarification.

  • I was very relieved by this policy revision (not a clarification as titled by the Newsroom), because it clearly reduces the number of children who will be affected.

    But no child should be discriminated against. To my knowledge, this is the first time in the history of our church that we have singled out certain babies as unworthy of naming and blessing ceremonies. Our church does not have a clean history of nondiscrimination, but I had hoped we were moving forward and away from the institutional sins of our past, not planning new ways to discriminate.

    Elder Christofferson said the purpose of the policy is to keep children out of the church for their own good. In other words, to motivate the few same sex families who remain active in the church to leave and take their children with them. Then he and the revision letter went on to say they are still welcome at church anyway. How can we make policies with the stated intention of pushing people out and then still claim they are…

  • The title of this column is partially misleading, in that the clarification of exactly how the residence requirements work is just that. From the beginning the statements of Church spokesmen implied that this applied to children actually living with same-sex couples, in spite of what the written policy seemed to call for. The clarification on children already in the pipeline seems to be an actual softening, but could have been what the Brethren intended from the beginning. I don’t know.

    More broadly, it isn’t that people in SS relationships are worse than being a rapist, etc., but that they are in another category. No one believes that rapists are behaving morally — they are sinners, but not apostates. Those in same-sex relationships are apostates, and as Paul acknowledged they need to be treated accordingly. We can see in the modern US Catholic Church what happens when apostasy is tolerated. Which, I suspect, is why LDS SS supporters are so upset. We won’t be following that…

  • If they had the slightest interest in thinking things through, all of their antigay policies for the last 40 years would never have existed.

  • If they are keeping these children out of the church for their own good, then they are saying that this church is not good for children.

    Of course, ask any gay Mormon just how good the church is for gay people. In fact, just ask any gay person.

  • Mike
    “What I am surprised by is they didn’t think any of these things through in advance before changing the policy.”


    It is quite disappointing–shocking actually–that these policies were a) poorly written and/or b) poorly thought out. Is this the result of “group think,” failure to engage in “due diligence,” or a lack of intellectual curiosity to become fully informed on both sides of the issues?

    I’m a life-long church member, but have significantly changed my engagement with the church primarily because of the Prop 8 campaign. Just more disappointment and stumbles with these new policies. People of my generation may tolerate such policies, but younger generations will interface and come to know people who are LGBT and will be more inclined to follow Christ’s admonition to “love one another and love your neighbor as yourself.”

    My heart aches for our LGBT members–especially the young–as they contemplate the years stretching before them and…

  • I’m happy that protests by many, many active Church members, Bishops, and others were effective. At least the revised policy is gutted so it affects relatively few families compared to the first version. I fully expect more revisions and, with any luck, a reversal. The recent mass resignations, public protests, and negative coverage are hurting the Church’s already tarnished image.

  • To call SS marriage “apostasy” is Orwellian. How is this apostasy? Is every person living in sin an apostate. If so, that makes you, brother, an apostate also.
    It seems obvious to me that labeling SS marriage as apostasy was a convenient way to cause SS marriage to receive the most severe punishment in the Church. To have created a new category of “capital punishment” for SS marriage would have attracted more attention and would have underscored that this whole policy is a hardline “change” .
    I am sad that my Church has embarked on this path (especially towards children of SS marriages). But even more sad that it was disingenuous in justifying its position: “Wellbeing [of children] and harmony in the home.” If that was the real reason, the church should have disinvited children of parents who are dishonest, or uncharitable or abusive towards others, or who are convicted felons. They too will hear teachings incompatible with their parents behavior.

  • No, that’s not what they’re saying. Not even close. Try making an honest argument. If you can, I mean.

  • No, not all sinners are apostates. An apostate is someone whose heresy is so extreme that it is incompatible with continued membership in the church in question. These are those that Paul spoke of, in 1st Corinthians 5:9-13, when he told them not to associate with the sexually immoral within the Church — not, I think, meaning those that acknowledged their guilt and sought forgiveness, but those that saw nothing wrong with how they acted. Such people are especially dangerous to the spiritual welfare of others in the Church because they can lead those others to join them in their sin or at least in the lie that it is no sin.

    So are people today that openly engage in same sex marriages or even just relationships. They are proclaiming to the world that sex outside of conjugal marriage is no sin, and the understanding of marriage that God has revealed to us is fundamentally flawed. And that makes them too dangerous to be allowed to continue as cancer cells within the Church.

  • Doug, you are just stretching the definition of apostasy. And you are wresting the scriptures. Shame on you.

    Paul did not speak of homosexuality in those verses. He spoke of persons who are fornicators, covetous, idolater, railers, drunkards or extortioners. Are you saying that these people are apostates? Why does the handbook not label them as such? That scripture is no answer for the policy of which we are speaking.
    And if you are saying that Paul really meant to label all immorality as such, then why are not fornicators, adulterers, unmarried cohabitors, and pornography addicts not all listed as apostates?
    People who disobey the word of wisdom, lie, cheat, show hatred to others also proclaim to the world that our Churches understanding of fundamental Christlike behavior is also flawed. Should we kick all of these “cancer cells” out of the church?

  • You need to take another look at my post. Leaving aside that Paul references the sexually immoral in general, as I pointed out the threat of heresy and apostasy doesn’t come from the sin itself, we’re all sinners after all, but from calling evil good and good evil. Those are the “wicked persons” that Paul calls on us to expel from among us.

  • You make a point of calling the letter a revision, not a clarification. That seems objectively wrong, since the original language remains intact. But it was your statement, so please clarify (or revise!) to say why you believe that to be the case. Thanks.

  • No, I wasn’t implying anything of the sort, one way or the other. I was expressly saying that it is wise and thoughtful and deliberate (among other things) to wait to see how things shake out before shrieking at people.

    Why do you put scare quotes around the word clarification by the way?

  • I wouldn’t know if the original language remains intact. As a female member of the LDS Church, my only access to the official policy is through media reports. It is too bad there is not more transparency in church policy, so we could all see the policy manuals and know exactly what they say. I was simply commenting on the fact that the letter released by the First Presidency clearly changes the rule leaked to the media and confirmed by the Church Newsroom previously.

    I am delighted that church leaders revised some of the provisions of the original rule so promptly, thus lessening the damage. Responsiveness is important to good policy making. Being willing to correct mistakes is also an important part of Christian humility.

    I hope that church leaders will continue to reconsider the parts of this policy that remain in place in light of the valuable feedback they are still receiving from church membership.

  • But obviously only one form of “sexually immoral behavior in general” is treated differently than others. No other form is used as grounds for ostracism, political attacks and generally treating others badly.

    The idea that all sins are treated equally, rationally and proportional to the harm caused is a laughable fiction. It all comes down to excuses for one’s personal bigotry here.

    Anyone expecting rational behavior, consistency or honesty from religious practice is fooling themselves here. Of course its not going to make sense, be humane or sane. Religion is great for excusing behavior, not making clear and logical arguments.

  • We have not been given ANY revelation that we even need to worry about such things. We need to hear from God on this matter. Until we do, this is the doctrine of men, inspired or not. Seeing that they are backing off just proves that they are drawing near to Christ with the lips, but their heart are far from Him. Seeing that they do not reveal any new revelation proves they are rejecting His power. If I can get revelation from God and I am just some guy on the street, I see no reason why those with they key can’t seem to talk to God. This just makes no sense at all to me.

  • These are thoughtful comments. But since you didn’t know whether the guidance in the recent letter represented a revision or a clarification, it would have been better not to have taken a position on that in your original comment. Perhaps on reflection you agree. Media reports were slanted and, although the text of the new Handbook sections were leaked (so you could have known what they said, but there’s no objection on my part if you didn’t look up the leaked text), they were never intended for public release. It took genuinely unethical conduct by persons who purport to pride themselves on their ethicality (hypocrisy abounds, right?) to leak the explicitly confidential material. The Church is not likely to reconsider the policy because, as Elder Christofferson and others mention, it is almost word for word the same as policies long adopted, uncontroversially, for children living in polygamist and Muslim households. Children should not be pawns in their elders’ crusades.

  • I put the word in quotation marks because of the disagreement whether the change is a clarification or revision. Qualifying the term seemed, and still does, appropriate.

    If the change were deemed a clarification, doing so would be evidence of incompetency, both in the drafting and the reviewing stages of policy-setting. One would think the church’s lawyers at Kirton McConkie could have done a better job drafting the policy change. Basic legal writing. First-year law school stuff.

    If on the other hand the changes were revisions, this would suggest the church got the policy exactly as it wanted, but then pulled back in the face of public disavowal.

    Which brings me to your comment. Your response to my question makes your “shriek” comments illogical. You don’ necessarily believe the changes would have occurred absent publicity and outcry. Then what’s your point? Wait and hope are rarely legal stratagems I recommend to my clients. Better to shriek, it seems to me.

  • Exactly so, Doug. Sinners may be repentant (I sinned and I’m sorry and resolve to stop) or unrepentant (I’ll sin all I want to and you can’t stop me), but apostasy goes to theology (what I’m doing isn’t sin). That is the crucial distinction.

  • Steve, I get the distinction. But to understand whether someone is a sinner or has not accepted church theology would require some analysis as to their state of mind. The Handbook makes no such provision.

    SS marriage is “defined” to be apostasy. A person living in a SS marriage is an apostate regardless of whether he is just a “sinner” or a whether he disagrees with the doctrine.

    Fornication (and a host of other serious sins) is not so defined. If a person is a fornicator, the person is not treated as an apostate, even though the person does not believe he/she is sinning.

    SS marriage has been singled out for harsher treatment. Why?

    If the harsher treatment was inspired, then why the ruse of calling it “apostasy” . Why not have a new category of mandatory discipline: “SS marriage”? Then it would obvious that this is a change of doctrine (i.e. SS marriage just became a much greater sin than any other immorality and requires ecclesiastic “capital…

  • I love Sue’s comment about “lawyerese” as she commends your (Danny S) lawyerly commentary. Funny.

    But the use of scare quotes was inappropriate because, disagreement or no, there is no reason to see the additional guidance as anything other than … additional guidance, hence, a clarification. No change in the text of the policies was needed or intended. To the extent there was a potential for misunderstanding (as there indeed may have been) the guidance solved the problem.

    With respect to the snarky comments (right? they were snarky?) about “Kirtin McKonkie” (like YOU know, joker) I guess it didn’t occur to you that the drafting was intended to mirror existing policy regarding poilygamous families. Right? You didn’t think of that did you, counsel? So the intent would have been to import *existing* understandings of how these issues are handled in such situations. (End of Part 1.)

  • (Part 2.) So if we look at this from a legal, sort of case law, perspective, the idea would have been that by adopting the language and concept of pre-existing policies, the manner of applying those policies would follow suit. Right? That’s logical, right?

    But what I think the Brethren (not counsel but actual apostles of Jesus Christ) didn’t antipate is that .. ahem … dorsal blowholes would *publish* the explicitly confidential policy revisions SO THAT they could use that unethical disclosure as fodder for doing what they are wont to do, namely, to launch unwarranted attacks on the good faith and reasonablness of Church policies. The attacks themselves sow confusion even among the faithful. See Matt. 24:24. (End of Part 2.)

  • (Part 3.) So, no, my original comment was not intended to imply anything about the genesis of the additional guidance. But my sense (this is only my sense because, unlike you, I don’t claim to know things that are beyond my knowledge) is that it is the misinterpretations of critics prompted the clarification, which would not have been necessary if y’all weren’t shrieking at people.

  • I have to disagree that labeling joining in a SS marriage as apostasy is treating them more harshly, as a practical matter. Do you believe that a known adulterer that refuses to acknowledge his/her guilt and repent — including breaking off the adulterous affair — won’t be excommunicated? Or a member discovered to be in a polygamous marriage?

    But beyond that, leaving aside legends of marriages due to visits to Las Vegas involving copious amounts of alcohol, marrying isn’t something one falls into in a moment of weakness — there’s too many hoops to jump through, too many opportunities to reconsider. Between that and the inherently life-changing, ideally permanent impact of marriage on one’s life, I have serious trouble believing that a member of the Church would marry someone of the same sex believing that it is an immoral act, contrary to the innate nature of marriage instituted by God, with no eternal future.

  • Try, easy man. Unhinged just a little? Your 3 part response that began with your comments accusing people of “shrieking” is ironic. Consider yourself the winner in the debate, ok? No doubt we’ll take a long time to recover from the “dorsal blowholes” bomb. Remember to “give Brother Joseph a break” and “stay in the boat”. Powerful battle cries, to be sure. We’ll wave to you as the boat drifts away.

  • I’m disappointed you didn’t like “dorsal blowholes.” Oh well. I’ll keep working on it, and thanks for the feedback. Your comments seemed lame to me, but that just goes to show you that we all have different opinions, right? Just on that topic, my view continues to be that it is wise and thoughtful and deliberate (among other things) to wait to see how things shake out before shrieking at people. If you agree with that now, then we’re good. Thanks.

  • I don’t have a problem with policies being changed or revised. It happens all the time in world and local politics. I don’t see why it should be different with the Church which will ultimately be a theocratic government. After all, Church programs have changed many times over the years. What is more important that the PRINCIPLE behind the latest Church policies remains UNCHANGED: the Lord did not approve of the practice of sodomy in ancient Biblical times; He won’t approve of LGBT relationships now or into the future. And why should He? The practice of LGBT relationships diminishes the importance of child rights. Adults in LGBT relationships put their own sexual preferences above the wellbeing of their children, who deserve a male father and a female mother. People in LGBT relationships demonstrate selfishness and disobedience to the Lord’s commandments. Church leadership upholds those commandments. Policy revision is in keeping with ongoing improvement–a gospel principle.