A group of Equal Rights Amendment supporters chained themselves to the main gates of the Mormon Temple in Kensington yesterday, blocking access to the temple parking lot for nearly an hour until a high-ranking Mormon official came out to meet them.
The group of nine women, who called themselves the Congressional Union, were protesting what they called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' involvement in national politics, particularly its opposition to the rights amendment. Members of the group said that they also were protesting a recent decision by Marion Callister, a federal judge in Idaho and former Mormon official, who ruled that Congress acted illegally when it extended the deadline for ratification of the ERA three years ago.
"We've locked the gates and no one will get in until the president of the temple, Wendell Eames, comes out to listen to us," said Sonia Johnson, president of Mormons for ERA. Johnson, who was excommunicated from the Mormon church in 1979 for her pro-ERA activities, did not chain herself to the fence, but led protest songs and carried a sign saying "Bigots Make Bad Missionaries." Meanwhile, a handful of women inside the fence addressed her as "Sister Johnson," and said that they would pray for her.
Carrying hand-sewn banners in the purple and gold colors of the suffragist movement, about a dozen demonstrators arrived at the Temple shortly before 11 a.m. and began picketing its Visitors Center, located a few yards from the main gate. Then nine more women appeared at the main gates and quickly chained themselves to both entrance and exit fences. A Montgomery County police officer, who asked not to be named, had told the protestors that police had been tipped off about the demonstration in advance.
The group dispersed when Eames, the highest ranking local Mormon official and head of the largest U.S. Mormon temple outside Utah, came out to meet the group shortly before noon. There were no arrests.
A woman who was inside the locked gates said that 40 or 50 cars and a large charter bus were unable to leave the temple grounds because of the protest. The woman then was advised by a security guard at the gate not to talk to reporters.
Vernon Gantt, a visitor from North Carolina, angrily told security guards that celebrations following his daughter's wedding in the temple were being interrupted.
"Don't you think it's illegal that these women are keeping us kidnaped in here?" he asked, adding: "If these women knew anything about the Mormon religion they wouldn't be here. Mormon women have more freedom than any others, because they're married to their husbands for eternity. That's all they need."
Shirley Wallace, a Mormon housewife from Colorado who has moved to Washington to work for the ERA on a one-year "mission," told Eames that the church's stance, "makes me ashamed to be a Mormon. All of us here today repudiate with all our strength the tiny minority in this country, Mormons and others, who cloak themselves in the mantle of Christianity while using religion as an excuse to keep women oppressed."