Today marks the third anniversary of the church’s infamous exclusion policy, labeling same-sex couples apostates and denying children who have a parent in a same-sex relationship ordinances and full participation in the church. When the policy was publicly announced, I wrote a letter of objection to my local church leaders and a few days later decided to make it public, along with encouraging everyone who had a concern about the new policy to write their local leaders. If we care about the church and those who are being hurt by this policy, I believe we have a right and an obligation to respectfully inform our church leaders of our opinions and concerns. How else will they know of the pain and suffering occurring unless we let them know? Here is the letter I wrote to my local leaders.
Dear Bishop ______ and President ______,
I feel strongly that I need to voice my concerns to you over the recent policy change that so deeply hurt my family and many other people we know and love, and hope that you will convey this message to the higher authorities of the church. Please be assured that this letter is not to protest, criticize or resign my membership. I simply feel that as a member in good standing in this church that I have a right and an obligation to voice my opinion when I see so much damage being done both to the church and more especially to the “least of these” whom the Savior has commanded us to give special care to.
I know that many in the church would not agree with me and believe that we are to simply accept and follow everything our leaders say without question. I have never been comfortable with that line of reasoning and instead believe what Joseph Smith said on the subject:
“We have heard men who hold the priesthood remark that they would do anything they were told to do by those who preside over them (even) if they knew it was wrong; but such obedience as this is worse than folly to us; it is slavery in the extreme.” (Millennial Star, Vol. 14, Num. 38, pp.593-59)
So given that, I hope you will understand that I am approaching you with all due respect and sincerity of heart.
Like many others, when I first learned of the policy my first thought was disbelief – it couldn’t be real. When it was confirmed, something inside me sort of died. This did not feel right in my heart, this was not the church I knew and loved, this was not the Spirit of Christ; it felt like a horrible mistake that no amount of intellectual argument and legal wrangling could justify. And I am not alone in this feeling. For instance, just yesterday Brother and Sister Jones* approached me with real consternation and asked if I had heard of the policy. (You may not know this but they have a gay grandson whom they helped raise and who is in a same-sex relationship, and Sister Jones loves them both.) She could only ask “Why, brother Cook? Why would the church do this? I just don’t understand?” Brother Jones expressed exasperation as well. If a stalwart couple like the Brother and Sister Jones who have given their whole lives to the church feel this way, what does this say about the damage that is being done? And I know many others who are expressing similar sentiments, including some who have tendered their temple recommends or resigned their membership in just the last few days.
Given these feelings I want to be proactive and constructive in voicing my concerns with hopes that further damage might be avoided. Perhaps if someone in the Parowan and Cedar City stakes had had the courage to voice their opinion to their stake presidents in those fateful secret meetings back in 1857, the Mountain Meadows Massacre could have been avoided. Perhaps if others in the Willie and Martin handcart companies had joined their voices with Levi Savage who warned against the late travel (and was severely chastised for not having faith in his leaders), the resulting suffering and death could have been prevented. Perhaps if church leaders in Brigham Young’s day had stood up to the policy change he instituted that denied blacks the priesthood and temple blessings (and which the church now acknowledges was based on racist cultural attitudes of that age), our church could have avoided causing untold emotional and spiritual injury to thousands of black people – as well as to the white members who perpetuated harmful racist attitudes (even to this day) because of the false folk doctrines they were taught in an attempt to justify an increasingly unjustifiable policy.
This new policy has already begun to tear apart families, exactly the opposite of what the church stands for. Let me give you a few examples that I am personally aware of. I know a number of gay men who in good faith (and sometimes following the counsel of their church leaders) married women believing that through their righteous obedience and faithfulness, God would make it all work out. Sadly, as the statistics bear out, the marriage didn’t work out and the couples divorced. These men are on generally good terms with their ex-wives and have children ranging in ages from 5 to 19 (one recently went on his mission). Some of the men are now dating or in a relationship with same-sex partners. And some of them still have testimonies of the gospel and want their children to be raised in the church. They have these sweet innocent children who love their dads and who also love the church, who are now learning that they will not be able to live with their dads at some point if they want to stay in the church, and that they will have to disavow them. One young girl of 13 just loves going to the temple to do baptisms and now is in great fear that this privilege will be taken from her. The younger children will appear to be denied baptism and the protecting power of the Holy Ghost while all of their cousins and friends excitedly prepare for these steps. Are these the fruits of Christ’s gospel?
This policy is inconsistent with the current teachings of the church on LGBT issues. For instance, the church has recently taught families and church members to love and accept gay members even if they are in a same-sex relationship – which the new policy considers to be apostasy:
– “Let’s not have families exclude or be disrespectful of those who choose a different lifestyle…” (Elder Quentin Cook, [on former mormonsandgays church website])
– “The best case scenarios that I have dealt with are where families have been unequivocal about their love and compassion for a family member who is gay and who has decided that they are not going to live the standards of the Church.” (President Roger Carter, stake president, [on former mormonsandgays church website])
– …some members exclude from their circle of fellowship those who are different [have same-sex attraction]. When our actions or words discourage someone from taking full advantage of Church membership, we fail them—and the Lord. (Elder Jeffrey Holland, “Helping Those Who Struggle with Same-Gender Attraction,” Ensign, October 2007)
– Public example of Elder Todd Christofferson, whose family loved and accepted his brother Tom and Tom’s partner as part of the family.
As the parent of two gay sons, I am left wondering whether my membership status will be called into question at some point. For instance, Elder Christofferson made public statements in press conferences in January and March 2015 that church members can support same-sex marriage and still be in good standing in the church. But the new policy states that same-sex marriage is apostasy. Having met many gay men, some trying to remain celibate and others who have entered into monogamous same-sex relationships, I have come to see that those in the latter category are, in most cases, much more emotionally and spiritually healthy than those who remain single and celibate (the church recognizes this as well with respect to heterosexual single adults and is constantly urging them to date and marry). So if parents consider a same-sex relationship safer and healthier for their children than forced celibacy, aren’t they supporting apostate behavior?
In addition, why are children born into same-sex marriages or relationships required to disavow such relationships and not live with that parent, while member parents who have a gay child in a same-sex relationship are not required to disavow the relationship of that child or prohibit him or her from living in their home? Should I worry that at some point the church will require me to disavow my child’s relationship with a partner, effectively making me choose between my membership and accepting my child? What if my child’s partner/spouse is like a member of the family whom we have come to love, no different than my other married children’s spouses (which was the case with Elder Christofferson’s brother’s partner in their family). What are the fruits of a policy that turns the hearts of the children away from their fathers and the hearts of their fathers away from their children?
As you know, we along with several other faithful members of the church, started a local support group called “ALL are alike unto God” (or ALL for short) for LDS LGBT people and their families and allies over three years ago. That little group has grown to 365 people at last count. One of the objectives of this group was to show our LGBT members (or former members) that they are loved and wanted by active members of the church, and that if they feel God calling them back to church there is still a place for them – even if they are in a same-sex relationship. You might be surprised how many have felt this pull; so many of them have such tender hearts and have always been sensitive to the Spirit. But with the new policy that objective has been wiped out. How I wish you could hear the stories of the people in our group, see the light in their eyes and discern the spirit they have. Just as Peter was surprised that Cornelius, a gentile, could feel the Holy Ghost, you might be surprised at the spirituality and Christ-like love of the LGBT people in our group. And now their hearts have been broken yet again by their church. How many punches can they – and their families – take and keep coming back?
I hope this message touches your heart. I’m sure the church has all kinds of legal-logical arguments for enacting such a policy, and I’m humble enough to admit that I could be wrong in my appraisal of it. But whatever the reasons, it affects real people and their families. They are not just abstract doctrinal concepts or difficult problems the church must deal with – they are children of our Heavenly Father and the “least of these.” And I wouldn’t count myself a worthy disciple of Christ if I didn’t at least share my feelings with you as my local leaders. The saddest thing for me would be to learn that the church leaders who enacted the policy actually do recognize the pain and loss the policy would cause but that they are deliberately casting off the LGBT segment of the church (which includes their families and all those who sympathize with them) because they fear that as apostates they will contaminate the church, so the church is better off without them. If that is the case, then I imagine I am part of the segment to be cast off because I don’t think I could identify with such an action. I fear that unless corrected, this policy could turn out to be a mistake of the magnitude of that made by Brigham Young so long ago, which had negative consequences for thousands of people across many generations.
In closing, may I plead with you to remember the “one” as you try to protect the ninety and nine? As you preach holding to the rod, following the prophet and defending the faith during this challenging period, please don’t forget to also preach compassion for those cast on the side of the road whom the Levite and priest passed by. Please don’t forget to speak of our covenant to bear one another’s burdens, to mourn with those who mourn, and comfort those who stand in need of comfort. In the midst of all the heartache I have heard some inspiring accounts of leaders reaching out to their ward members who are hurting this last weekend: a Relief Society president who dropped off a cake with a message expressing compassion and sorrow to a family who has a gay son; a stake president who called a member of his high council who has a gay brother to give comfort and see how he was doing; a stake president who called a woman in his stake who has a gay son to mourn with her and give her comfort; a number of bishops who in ward meetings reminded their wards to be compassionate and loving to their fellow members who were particularly sorrowing over the policy. That is the Mormon church I know and love.
Bryce and Sara Cook
*Name changed to protect privacy.