“While we still consider such a marriage to be a serious transgression, it will not be treated as apostasy for purposes of Church discipline,” three Mormon leaders said in a joint statement on Thursday. “Instead, the immoral conduct in heterosexual or homosexual relationships will be treated in the same way.”
The new policy, which effectively removes the threat of ex-communication for gay Mormons, was announced during the leadership session of the church’s 189th Annual General Conference.
“We want to reduce the hate and contention so common today,” the statement said.
However, the church, which lobbied against gay marriage in California and Hawaii before it became legal across the U.S., emphasized that the reversal of its policy does not change Mormon teaching that sex is intended for marriage between a man and a woman.
“People who are progressive see this as a positive change, but still not where they want the church to go,” said Steve Evans, a Salt Lake City-based contributor to the popular Mormon blog “By Common Consent."
The initial decision to exclude LGBT families from the core rituals, announced in June 2015, was met with fierce criticism across the 16 million-member Mormon Church. Many Mormons said at the time that they planned to exit the church over the announcement.
“It sent a shock wave through the church,” said Taylor Petrey, a religion professor at Kalamazoo College who is writing a book on gender and Mormonism.
Petrey said he was especially surprised by the new policy because the president of the church, Russell M. Nelson, was one of the old policy’s most vocal defenders.
“He called it a revelation, which is the highest status of church teaching there is,” he said. “To see that rescinded while he’s the head of the church is a shocking reversal.”
The policy and its reversal was determined by the church’s 15 member male leadership, which is known for being silent about its decisions. The church said it would not comment further.
Before the policy was announced in 2015, Mormon leaders were becoming known for trying to find a balance between advocating for their religious freedom and allowing for LGBT rights by working out a political compromise with LGBT leaders in Utah earlier that year. Surveys from the Pew Research Center found that the share of Mormons saying homosexuality should be accepted by society rose from 24 percent in 2007 to 36 percent in 2014.
But many Mormons saw the controversial policy as a step back from the relationships and reputation it had built as a broker between conservative religious communities and the LGBT community. Some local Mormon leaders weren’t sure how to implement it, said Matthew Bowman, a historian of the Mormon Church. For example, some Mormon children had parents who were in a same-sex relationship, but they weren’t living with them due to divorce.
“There have been local leaders who have slow-peddled it, put it on hold, or sought further clarification,” he said. “Because of that, the impact of it has not been [as widespread as] it could have been.”
Under the old policy, once the child of an LGBT parent turned 18, he or she could disavow the practice of same-sex cohabitation or marriage and stop living within the household and request special approval of church leaders to to join the church. Under the new policy, it will be no longer necessary to do this.
Children are usually blessed as infants and baptized around age 8, practices which Mormons believe are a covenant with God, necessary for salvation and essential for other rituals like marriage.
Evans said that the reaction against the initial policy was so swift in large part because it seemed to punish children for the actions of parents.
“It’s probably the first time I’ve seen direct public opposition to a church policy by the rank and file,” he said. “That might have something to do with the reversal today.”
Still, he said, there might be pushback among some who thought the old policy was supposed to have been divined by God.
“People who supported it are saying, was it from God? If it was from God, why are you rolling it back?," Evans said. "Other people are saying, we knew it wasn’t from God. Does it call into question the church’s claims to divine authority because of the reversal? Maybe it points us to a leadership that isn’t infallible.”
Kerry Spencer, who was raised in the Mormon church and taught at Brigham Young University for several years, said the policy was a big reason she left the church in 2016. Mother of two children and engaged to be married to another woman, she said she was “cranky and annoyed” because her forthcoming marriage would still be considered a “serious transgression” by the church.
“You’re constantly made to think there’s something broken about you,” she said. “You’re somehow unfixable in this life.”
Mormons place a high emphasis on the family, and the church teaches that one must be married to achieve the fullness of salvation. Spencer said she doesn’t expect the church to make any further steps toward being more open and welcoming toward people who are LGBT.
“I’m glad they’re making baby steps,” she said. “It feels safer to have not much hope.”
In 2014, the Pew found that the level of acceptance for same-sex marriage by Mormons was 26 percent, about the same as evangelicals. The only major religious tradition that was less accepting of homosexuality were Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.