A sex therapist who publicly challenged her church’s teachings on sexuality has been expelled as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, according to a letter she received Wednesday.
Helfer believes that the church has targeted the mental health profession, while the LDS Church maintains that she was expelled because of her public opposition to the church.
“It was so ridiculous. I was treated like I was at a club with a bouncer in it,” Helfer said when they didn’t let her into the council with her phone. “I did not plead or beg.”
A disciplinary hearing was held Sunday at a chapel in Derby, Kan., over what a March 21 letter called Helfer’s “repeated, clear, and public opposition to the Church, its doctrine, its policies, and its leaders.”
Stephen Daley, LDS stake (regional) president in Derby, wrote in a letter on Wednesday that while members may hold diverse opinions on a number of topics, Helfer “cannot be a member in good standing when you have demonstrated a pattern of clear and deliberate opposition to the Church, its doctrine, its policies, and its leaders.”
“Your professional activities played no part in the decision of the council,” he wrote. “Rather, as stated in my prior letter to you, the sole purpose of this council was to consider your repeated, clear and public opposition to and condemnation of the church, its doctrines, its policies and its leaders.”
Ahead of Sunday’s meeting, Helfer said there was a conflict of interest in the process. She said that the stake president, Daley, who is an executive at Koch Industries, is also her husband’s former boss. Daley did not respond to a request for comment.
An LDS Church spokesman said that membership councils are private matters and declined to answer specific questions about the case.
“As the letter shared by Ms. Helfer indicates, the decision of the local leaders was based on her public, repeated opposition to the Church, Church leaders and the doctrine of the Church, including our doctrine on the nature of the family and on moral issues,” Eric Hawkins, a spokesman for the LDS Church, said in a statement. “As indicated by the stake president, neither the council’s purpose, discussion nor decision were related to her private practice as a therapist.”
In a letter on Nov. 9, 2020, Daley expressed concern over Helfer’s public views on topics such as masturbation (she counsels that it is not a sin), pornography (she says it should not be treated as an addiction) and same-sex marriage (which she supports).
In his letter, Daley also wrote that Helfer was disparaging to LDS leaders, asking her, “Why is the overwhelming tone of your posts negative towards the church and its leaders?”
Experts on Mormon history say Helfer’s case comes as a surprise because many believe that she has promoted beliefs about sex that are in line with the positions of other licensed mental health professionals.
Hundreds of Mormon mental health professionals signed a letter of support last week. Many said that if Helfer were expelled, it could create a chilling effect on other Mormon mental health professionals who feel an ethical obligation to provide patients with evidence-based psychological recommendations, even if it means contradicting some LDS Church teachings or cultural expectations.
Marty Erickson, president of the Mormon Mental Health Association, which was founded by Helfer, said he is a Mormon in good standing with the church but that mental health professionals are worried about whether the church could similarly impact their membership.
“If you’re some dude talking on your porch, no one’s going to care,” Erickson said. “If you do it on a public platform, that’s when church leaders tend to take notice. Believe whatever you want. As soon as you print it, maybe there’s going to be a problem. That’s the difference.”
It is unclear whether one particular event sparked concern about Helfer among the church’s leaders.
In his letter, Daley noted this quote from Helfer: “The last thing I want for my people is to replace one patriarchal prick for another. You can quote me on that one. Beware of any person/organization/system that assumes they know better than you about what you need.” She said she wrote that comment on her personal Facebook page and made a similar comment on podcasts.
She said she will stop using “colorful” language when church leaders stop.
“When will they stop calling homosexual people degenerate and perverse and unholy?” Helfer said. “They’re upset that I called them patriarchal pricks. If they want me to stop saying bad words, they need to stop calling other people bad words.”
Helfer said she and other Mormon therapists are often left to “pick up the pieces” when Mormons are impacted by church teaching that contradicts evidence-based mental health recommendations.
“I see the results of having things said over the pulpit that do not match mental health best care standards that cause clients harm,” she said.
Helfer’s disciplinary case follows those of at least three high-profile former members who were excommunicated from the church for apostasy. Kate Kelly, who advocated for the ordination of women in the church, was excommunicated in 2014. John Dehlin, a well-known advocate for dissenting Mormons, created a forum online to help them gather and was expelled in 2015. And Sam Young, who protested one-on-one interviews between clergy and youth, was excommunicated in 2018.
Dehlin, who often features Helfer on his podcast and joined Helfer in Kansas, said being excommunicated is devastating and often causes shunning within the Mormon community.
“It’s like cultural, social and spiritual execution because you’re raised to think of the church sort of as your real parents,” Dehlin said. “You’re raised believing that the church is the highest form of goodness and love as a parental figure.”
When members like Helfer lose their membership in the church, a process that was formally called excommunication until recent years, they are told not to wear temple garments, contribute tithes and offerings, take the sacrament, give a talk or offer a public prayer in church or vote on church officers.
She said about 40 people flew to Kansas to be with her on Sunday and congregated near the chapel to show support. About five police cars showed up in the parking lot, Helfer said.
Before Sunday’s meeting, Helfer signed an agreement stating she would not record the meeting. When she arrived at the chapel in Derby on Sunday, church officials asked her to turn off her phone. Because she had prepared her notes for the meeting on her phone, she declined to do so and left.
Helfer and the rest of the group went to a river walk in Wichita, where her witnesses offered their stories, sang songs and prayed. At the end, they sang, “We are family.”
Helfer can appeal the decision by writing to the LDS Church’s governing body, called the First Presidency, within 30 days, which she said she plans to do.