I first heard the news in a television studio dressing room, sitting with Germaine Greer. The report was brief: Sonia Johnson was going to be tried by a Mormon Tribunal for criticizing her church's political actions against the Equal Rights Amendment.
For many months, the 43-year-old Virginia founder for Mormons for the ERA had been publicizing the fact that "grass-roots" opposition to the amendment in many western states was actually organized opposition of the Mormon Church. Now the church had struck back.
They were going to put her on trial to see if she should be cut off from the rights, privileges and fellowship of the religion her family had belonged to for five generations. To deny her, as they believe they can, a place in heaven.
In the quiet of the dressing room that morning, Greer exploded: "Good. Now this Sonia person will find out that you can't be a Mormon and a feminist."
"Good" was a cruel word for this human drama, which had brought pain to an entire family and anguish to many others. But days later -- after the brief, unsatisfactory trial -- I repeated this exchange to Sonia Johnson and asked: "Can you be a feminist and a Mormon?"
"Well," she said softly, "we're about to see."
On Dec. 5, she found out. The church said no, and as she held onto the other end of the phone, crying, she added, "It's no surprise . . . but when it happens . . . I've put off grieving, but now I can't help it."
Sonia Johnson is not alone. The answer, flat and unequivocal, is important to every woman and man who believe in equal rights and belong to a church opposed to them. It is important to anyone who has ever felt uplifted by religious beliefs and put down by religious institutions.
Hers is the most extreme, but not the only, example of what is happening to men and women in many other traditional fundamentalist religions -- men and women advocating change in a time of entrenchment. From Sister Teresa Kane, the nun who spoke up to the pope, to William Callahan, the priest being "reassigned" because he believes in women clergy, there is renewed hostility from many hierarchies. Women are again offered specious special privileges in return for a shroud, and allotted a place only as long as they will stay in it.
Still, Sonia Johnson was a curious choice for an ecclesiastical trial. "Ironically, I am what they made me," she said. "I am strong because the church makes strong women. There is a song in the church: 'Do What Is Right and Let the Consequences Follow.' I took them at their word."
For Years, the woman was aware of the ambivalence of the Mormon Church: "The basic teachings of the church are that we are all God's children, that he considers everyone equally. But in another teaching it says women must be obedient to their husbands.
In the gospel, the teaching is very egalitarian, but in the practice the men are in charge of everything."
She accepted this double message -- as have so many other women -- as the price of admission to her community. But in April 1978, a letter from the Mormon Hierarchy was read in the church where she was organist, calling the ERA unneccessary and a threat to the family.
I said to myself, no, that's not true," so she began her own crusade, criticizing the church for interfering with the state, for politicking, and, she believes, "killing the ERA in this country."
For this, she has now been excommunicated, set aside from her heritage and her family: from a brother who won't speak to her, a father who fears for her immortal soul, and a mother who alternates between pride and despair.
Ironically, she has even been criticized by Barbara Smith, the leading Mormon woman who once told a reporter, "I have always thought people should speak their own opinion even if they don't share mine."
Supported by her husband and children and friends, Sonia Johnson doesn't worry about being excluded from heaven. "I don't think that God is bound by men's mortal errors. I'm not afraid of God doing something that Old Boy-ish." But she feels the loss of her community and the pain of her family acutely.
She has learned what can happen when a rigid religious hierarchy moves against its own critics. The message is as old as the Inquisition.
On the day before the decision came, Sonia Johnson talked about her affection and her fear of rejection. "I don't want to leave it. I do love it. I feel it is as much my church as theirs. But maybe I can't be a feminist and a Mormon. Maybe they won't let it be. That may be what I'm going to discover. Which is pretty sad for the church, isn't it?"