The Fight For Women's Rights In The Mormon Church

by Lauren Barbato

Last April, about 500 protesters gathered at Salt Lake City's Temple Square, calling for gender equality within the Mormon Church. Now, the demonstration's leader, Kate Kelly, is facing excommunication from the Mormon Church, thanks to her advocacy for women's ordination — something that's long been prohibited. Kelly, a human rights lawyer and founder of the Ordain Women movement, received a letter from her bishop last Sunday, explaining the guidelines of her potential excommunication from the church. A disciplinary hearing has been scheduled for June 22.

Kelly has been accused of apostasy, which the Church Of Latter-Day Saints describes as "individuals or groups of people turn away from the principles of the gospel." According to The New York Times, it's the first time since 1993 that the Mormon Church has decided to "quash such prominent critical voices" in such a manner. The Times added that Kelly was warned by church officials last month; they said she needed to remove her Ordain Women website, disassociate herself from the organization and repent, or else there would be consequences.

The Mormon Church has been a focus of fascination for many Americans, from the reality TV series Sister Wives to tell-all memoirs, such as The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith. But much of the church's issues with the marginalization of women aren't publicized. In fact, Kelly has been one of the most outspoken female Mormon activist in recent years, which is possibly why she has rattled the Mormon Church's leaders.

George Frey/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Like the Catholic Church, women aren't allowed to enter the priesthood in the Church of Latter-Day Saints. According to former Latter-Day Saints president Gordon B. Hinckley, the priesthood is exclusive to men because "the Lord has put it that way."

Instead, female members can join the Relief Society, a philanthropic, women-only organization that was created in 1842. The Mormon Handbook describes the Relief Society as a way to help women "strengthen families and homes" — essentially, solidifying a woman's role as the caregiver and helpmate.

Although the Mormon Church likes to emphasize that women are equal, many Mormon women aren't satisfied with the all-male priesthood. For starters, the priesthood gives men spiritual benefits that are currently denied to women. Unlike the Catholic Church, which boasts an exclusive hierarchy, the Mormon Church is run by everyday people at the local level. As a result, only men are able to bless their children, give counsel, serve on disciplinary panels and decide what will be taught at Sunday school. According to The Atlantic, men even have the final say when it comes to the Relief Society.

George Frey/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Of course, having an all-male priesthood does create a certain hierarchy among Mormons. The male priests hold a semi-annual conference where they discuss significant issues facing the church. Because women aren't allowed to attend the meeting, it means half of the church population isn't given a voice or opinion on many pertinent issues — a number of which affect only women.

That's why in 2013, Kelly founded Ordain Women as a way to not only advocate for female priesthood, but to also spark discourse on gender inequality among Mormons. "Ordain Women believes women must be ordained in order for our faith to reflect the equity and expansiveness of these [Mormon] teachings," says the foundation's mission statement.

George Frey/Getty Images News/Getty Images

To highlight the need for women to be full participants in the Mormon church, Kelly organized the day of action in Salt Lake City last April. While the all-male priesthood met inside the LDS Conference Center in Temple Square, the 500 women lined up outside. One by one, they requested a ticket to the male-only meeting; each woman was rejected.

"We're not activists. We're not protesters," Kelly told Reuters. "We're people on the inside. We are investing in an institution ... not critiquing it to tear it down,"

Although Kelly has garnered support from many Mormon women, women's ordination is still not an issue many women agree with. According to a Pew Research Center poll taken at the LDS General Conference in October 2013, only 8 percent of Mormon women believe women should be eligible for the priesthood. Believe it or not, more Mormon men — 11 percent — agree with opening up the priesthood to women. The responses remain virtually unchanged from a 2011 Pew survey.

Despite her impending disciplinary hearing — and possible excommunication — Kelly remains confident about the future of the Ordain Women movement. Although she's angered by the council discussing her work and excommunication, she writes in a recent blog post:

When all is said and done, and the deep mourning process for me and for thousands of Mormon women has passed, I feel confident that the joy I have experienced for participating in Ordain Women will vastly outweigh my sorrows. ... The Ordain Women movement will continue to grow and to ask important and sincere questions.