“Church handbooks are policy and procedural guides for lay leaders who must administer the church in many varied circumstances throughout the world,” Hawkins said in a statement. “The church has long been on record as opposing same-sex marriages. While it respects the law of the land, and acknowledges the right of others to think and act differently, it does not perform or accept same-sex marriage within its membership.”
The LDS Church, popularly known as the Mormon Church, teaches that marriage is an institution created by God for one man and one woman. For Mormons, one must be married to achieve the fullness of salvation.
The church, which has wrestled with evolving laws on same-sex marriage and worked out a political compromise with LGBT leaders in Utah, set off turmoil among Mormons about its new policies, especially the policy on children of same-sex couples.
“I don’t see it as revolutionary, but very consistent with other church policies on marriages that are outside the Mormon pale, like polygamy,” said Ardis E. Parshall, a historian on Mormonism. “That does not lessen the pain for friends and families involved, though, so it’s tremendously significant.”
Before Thursday’s change, the church’s policy was that same-sex marriage might require discipline and it was usually left up to local leaders. Now that same-sex marriage is legal throughout the country, the church decided to identify those in a same-sex marriage as apostates, or people who renounce their faith.
If someone is believed to be acting in an apostate way, it triggers a disciplinary council, which can have different outcomes, from counseling to potential loss of membership.
Mormon children are normally blessed as infants and baptized around age 8, an act that Mormons believe is a covenant with God and essential to salvation.
The policy change on children of same-sex couples has been especially troubling to many Mormons, said Steve Evans, a contributor to the popular Mormon blog By Common Consent.
“People who support the church up and down have trouble with this,” Evans said. “It looks like you’re punishing children for the acts of their parents. I don’t think they are punishing children, but I’m really torn about it.”
Infants who are blessed are counted as “children of record” but are not officially members until they’re confirmed, which happens at baptism. Baptism is the sacrament that makes other sacraments possible; it’s necessary before marriage can be formalized, for instance.
The new policy says that once natural or adopted children living in a same-sex household reach 18, they may disavow the practice of same-sex cohabitation or marriage and stop living within the household. If the individual follows those two rules, they may request approval to be baptized, confirmed, ordained to the church priesthood and recommended for missionary service with the permission of the faith’s highest leaders, the First Presidency.
The LDS Church has been politically active on issues related to same-sex marriage and religious liberty. The church and its allies worked on a political compromise with gay rights advocates in Utah earlier this year. In March, leaders at the church’s headquarters in Salt Lake City helped to pass a bill known as the “Utah compromise,” which protects LGBT people from discrimination, as well as opponents of gay rights who cite religion as a basis for their beliefs.
The church, which has expressed fears that gay rights could trump religious rights, received national backlash after it fought gay marriage in California through Proposition 8 in 2008.
”Ever since Proposition 8, there have been attempts by the church to reach out, to formulate relationships with LGBT Americans,” said Matthew Bowman, a historian and author of “The Mormon People.” “This policy seems to be a step away from that.”
Earlier this year, an LDS apostle said that Mormons who support gay marriage would not lose their temple privileges or church memberships. Elder D. Todd Christofferson told KUTV in Salt Lake City that Mormons would be in trouble only for “supporting organizations that promote opposition or positions in opposition to the church’s.” Backing marriage equality on social media sites, including on Facebook or Twitter, “is not an organized effort to attack our effort.”
“Our approach in all of this, as [founder of the LDS Church] Joseph Smith said, is persuasion,” he said. “You can’t use the priesthood and the authority of the church to dictate. You can’t compel, you can’t coerce. It has to be persuasion, gentleness and love unfeigned, as the words in the scripture.”
The new policy does not mean Mormons who support same-sex relationships, either Mormon or otherwise, would be grounds for church discipline. It does mean, however, a shift for children of same-sex couples since they must disavow their parents’ practice and stop living within their household. Repeatedly acting against the church and opposing its leaders can make someone an apostate and would likely affect temple privileges and membership status.
Salt Lake City, where the LDS headquarters are based, just elected Jackie Biskupski as the city’s first openly gay mayor this week.
As religious groups, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons are the most opposed to same-sex marriage. About 70 percent of Mormons oppose same-sex marriage while 26 percent favor it, according to the Pew Research’s 2014 Landscape Study. About 57 percent of Mormons say homosexuality should be discouraged by society, down from 68 percent in 2007.
The new policy puts same-sex marriage into the same category as polygamous marriage. In 1890, the president of the church renounced polygamy, and the church began a major effort to stamp out polygamy beginning in 1904 and persisting until the 1930s.
In its policies, the church has differentiated itself from fundamentalists, an estimated 20,000 to 60,000 people, Bowman said.
There has been suspicion that fundamentalist groups will try to proselytize and gain access to temple worship, he said.
“That’s why the policy is so stringent,” Bowman said. “These marriages are seen as illegitimate and disruptive to the work of the church and gaining salvation.”
Randall Thacker, who is president of a group called Affirmation – LGBT Mormons, Families & Friends and is based in D.C., said the policy came as a shock to many Mormons. Thacker, who is gay and would like to be married and have children some day, said that LGBT Mormons feel pushed out of the church.
As a fifth generation Mormon who plays piano in services, Thacker said his ward was welcoming to him and his partner when he began attending services four years ago after nine years away from the church. He said that over the last five years, he saw local leaders who were willing to overlook those in a same-sex relationship.
“That gave a lot of people a lot of hope that things would change at a grassroots level,” he said. “Now they’ve drawn a line in the sand very clearly.”
He said it’s unlikely he would bring his children to church.
“As Mormons, we are pro-family and I find it hard to see how this lives up to that value,” he said. “It just raises a big question for me as to would I want to continue to engage with an organization that outright denies certain essential ordinances, such as baptism to my children.”
The changes to the LDS handbook, which were first published online by John Dehlin, a gay rights activist who was excommunicated from the church earlier this year, are below. Hawkins sent the same changes to the Washington Post. The changes were not officially announced on the LDS website, as the handbook where the policy changes were made is for local leaders and not members.
(This story has been updated several times to include additional interviews.)