Guest post: the Church’s announcement on same-sex marriage policy

Michael Davidson is a repentant attorney, father and husband. This post is cross posted to his personal blog “Exploring Redemption.”

It seems that the excitement of General Conference started a bit early this year.  The Deseret News and the Church Newsroomhad articles this morning talking about changes to policies related to discipline of people engaged in same sex marriages and the legal children of such individuals.  Despite a lack of specifics regarding what the new guidance in the Handbook entail, the usual suspects are declaring victory. Some are claiming that this vindicates the role of activism in the Church towards changing Church teachings; others are claiming that this is being forced by a drop in tithing revenue; while others are claiming that this is an effective repudiation of revelation as a guiding force in the Church.  All of this is nonsense.

Let’s put some of the discussion in context.  In the summer of 2015, there was a young lesbian couple who were attending a ward in the Seattle Washington North Stake.  They got engaged and announced their intention to be married publicly.  According to their blog entries about this matter, this resulted in a series of conversations with their bishop and their stake president in which they were told in no uncertain terms that they would face church discipline if they went ahead with their plans to marry.  These blog posts created a great stir in some quarters, and I suspect that the bishop and stake president involved received communications of varying degrees of politeness in response.  

Then, something unusual and unexpected seemed to happen.  According to a further blog post, this lesbian couple reported that their stake president had a change of heart! He reportedly told them that he would not allow them to be disciplined for getting married, and that for as long as he was stake president, no one in their stake would be disciplined for contracting a gay marriage.  This blog post when viral, but someone told this lesbian couple that sharing such a thing would likely get their stake president in trouble with Salt Lake, and so they password protected the post (the password was “gay” and was easily guessed by a friend of yours truly) in hopes that they could erase the potential for blowback on the stake president for taking a position that was obviously in contradiction of Church teachings.

At the time, I argued in several places that entering into a gay marriage was something the would mandate Church discipline, for apostasy and otherwise.  I have previously talked about apostasy on the virtual pages of the Millennial Star in a post entitled “Apostasy for Dummies.”  At the time, there were four potentially relevant and independent grounds for apostasy, including acting in “clear, open, and deliberate public opposition to the Church or its leaders.”  It is clear that the Church has spoken against same sex marriage for some time. There is no equivocation on the subject. And so, to enter into such a marriage is to act in clear, open, and deliberate defiance of Church teachings. There is no two ways about it.

Furthermore, discipline is mandated in cases in which there is a pattern of serious transgressions or publicly engaging in a serious transgression.  Contracting a same sex marriage is a serious transgression, as is any sexual congress associated therewith.  As a result, getting married (which is a public act legally) is, by definition, publicly engaging in a serious transgression that would require discipline even if one did not go into whether or not any physical breaking of the law of chastity were involved.

Frankly, by allegedly asserting that he would not allow disciplinary councils in any cases in which someone contracted a same sex marriage, the president of the Seattle Washington North Stake was taking a stand that was clearly contradicted by the instructions he was given as stake president by the Church.  To add fuel to the fire, I was aware of similar stands being taken by stake presidents in California and other places.

About six weeks after this last blog post was published by this lesbian couple, a member of the stake high council of the Seattle Washington North Stake at the time leaked updated language from the Church Handbook to to likeminded folks on the internet, which was then published broadly.  This new language included two basic changes, one being that the definition of apostasy was expanded to specifically include entering into a same sex marriage and the second being that the legal children of people entering into such marriages or similar relationships would be treated by the Church in the same way as children of polygamous families.

Now, from my way of looking at things, adding same sex marriage to the definition of apostasy was redundant, but it has long been my speculation that the Church did so because of the unwillingness of bishops and stake presidents in some places to discipline those contracting same sex marriages.  I have always seen it as a wake-up call to the leadership in stakes and wards that while same sex marriage is now legal in the USA, it is still a serious transgression in the Church.  I am not the only one to feel that way, as even one of the lesbians in Seattle later publicly apologized to the lgbt community for her role in the roll out of the policies leaked in early November 2015.  

So, while there is serious gloating and celebrating in some quarters this morning, I suspect that there is going to be some serious whiplash in the lgbt community in the coming days as the details of this new change come to light. It is only a matter of time before the new handbook language is released. So, while many are high-fiving each other, it appears that most people are taking a very superficial view of this, and not reading what was actually said in the Church’s statement linked above. 

In looking at the details outlined by President Oaks, who is very careful in his language, I don’t see reasons for people in same sex marriages, or those contemplating the same, to be all that happy with this. For instance, Pres. Oaks is reported to have said: “children of parents who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender may be baptized without First Presidency approval if the custodial parents give permission for the baptism and understand both the doctrine that a baptized child will be taught and the covenants he or she will be expected to make.”

It is instructive that he said “identify themselves as” rather than simply referring to people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. This is something that will continue to be a difference between those of the Church faithful and others. Also, it seems clear to me that instructions will be given to priesthood leaders to explain to these parents that the kids will be taught that same sex marriage and any homosexual relations are sinful. Further, it seems like bishops will be required to explain that the baptismal covenant will require them to live by and affirm those doctrines.

The next paragraph of the details states: “A nonmember parent or parents (including LGBT parents) can request that their baby be blessed by a worthy Melchizedek Priesthood holder. These parents need to understand that congregation members will contact them periodically, and that when the child who has been blessed reaches 8 years of age, a Church member will contact them and propose that the child be baptized.”

Again, if you look at this carefully, it is saying that anyone can come to the Church and ask to have a baby blessed. It implicitly states that lgbt parents are on par in this with any other nonmember parent.  These parents will be told that they should expect ministering visits, and it is possible that their agreement to these visits may be a requirement for moving forward. When baptism is proposed, I am expecting that the bishop will be required to interview (like all baptisms) and confirm that the child has been taught what he or she needs to be taught, and will perhaps require that the child understands that same sex marriage and homosexual relations are sinful.

With respect to contracting same sex marriages, Pres. Oaks provided that “While we still consider such a marriage to be a serious transgression, it will not be treated as apostasy for purposes of Church discipline.” Assuming that this is simply a return to the old language in the Handbook, which could not be the case, then disciplinary councils should be held for anyone in a same sex marriage. As noted above, councils are mandatory when there is a pattern of serious transgressions. Homosexual conduct and homosexual marriage are serious transgressions, and in the case of marriage an ongoing and continuing one. Councils are also mandatory when a serious transgression is widely known. In the case of same sex marriage, unless they are keeping it a secret from the ward, it will be widely known and must require discipline. 

When the language is released, either by the Church or by someone following in the leaker’s footsteps, there will likely be a lot of consternation by those who are not inclined to follow the Church’s teachings on chastity and repentance in the first instance. This is to be expected. But what has actually changed?  Same sex marriage has always been a transgression, this has not changed. Homosexual relations have always been a transgression, this has not changed. Children who are baptized need to have support in keeping their covenants and learning the gospel.  This has not changed, but where that child is in a household whose foundation is based on transgression, the Church will have to step in a bridge the gap from that child’s everyday lived experience to one in which a solid foundation can be built.  

It is clear to me that these children will need more care than any others, not because they are or should be ostracized due to the sins of the parents, but because they will be taught two very different things at home and at Church.  Those kids will need special attention and care in coming to understand and recognize the sins of their parents for what they are, in a way that other kids will not face.  My prayer is that each with have ministers up to the task, and perhaps that will lead to the repentance of their parents.

21 thoughts on “Guest post: the Church’s announcement on same-sex marriage policy

  1. Very interesting post. I hadn’t heard the background on the Seattle couple before.

    Couple of things jump out to me. I’m wondering why if this really doesn’t change much, why the brethern made the changes then…? It seems like this adds confusion rather than clarity, as the previous policy (hated as it was by many) was super clear.

    And then on this, “the baptismal covenant will require them to live by and affirm those doctrines.”

    I had my TR interview with my stake president last night. When we got to the ‘Do you associate with any…’ question, and he bent over backwards making it clear that this question does not require that I agree with the church on policies or doctrines. It’s more about platform building that works against the church. The SP brought this up on his own without my prompting and although he didn’t mention LGBTQ support by name, that was clearly what he was talking about. But it leaves me skeptical at this idea that living by and affirming certain doctrines is really that valued or necessary.

    Or to look at it this way. You also wrote: “Those kids will need special attention and care in coming to understand and recognize the sins of their parents for what they are, in a way that other kids will not face.” And I agree a kid with two dads is going to have a different experience than a kid with two married uncles, but I don’t know that they will in terms of doctrinal understanding. I’ve never heard of a teen (and we’ve got a lot of them in our ward that are very vocal, we also have LGBTQ kids in our ward and that hang out with the LDS kids at school) not getting a TR because of their support of LGBTQ.

    Although perhaps the requirements are all going to change. Anyway, I’m rambling now. Your post brings up some interesting directions of thought.

  2. *To caveat the above. “But it leaves me skeptical at this idea that living by and affirming certain doctrines is really that valued or necessary.” I didn’t mean to imply that I’m skeptical about core doctrines like faith in JC, sustaining Pres. Nelson, etc.

  3. Minor children whose parents or other close family members who are NOT church members should not be baptized regardless if the parents are heterosexual, homosexual, single, married, living with a partner, etc.

    Minimum age for baptism of a convert whose family is not LDS needs to be 18 years of age. I dealt with minor children members who had no family in the church and it is a very difficult situation.

    My child had a very good friend who joined the church with his sisters, all minors. The parents did not concern themselves if the children made it to church and other activities.; they were very very low income. We lived 12 miles away and in another ward but we helped them when and where we could…. getting to church, buying school and church clothes, etc. Their ward was not very helpful or supporting to them. They left the church because their Bishop went to their house and made a big deal about the clothes the young man wore to pass Sacrament. They joined a Baptist church….the Baptists were (and are) better at member support and over allvmember welfare compared to the LDS church.

  4. Yes, we will have to wait until the actual handbook language is distributed to know for certain how these changes will be handled. However, I will note that I have sympathy for those who have struggled under the November 2015 apostasy announcement.

    I served on a high council for several years with a stake president who took the view on high council courts that could result in excommunication that it didn’t make a lot of sense to excommunicate people who weren’t ready to repent. After sitting in on several of those councils, and seeing the long term effects of such compassion, it became clear to me that his was a wise decision. Members with no desire to repent aren’t likely to view a council action as the first step towards fixing what is wrong in their lives in a favorable light. Those who have been carefully counseled by leaders and others and have had a true change of heart recognize the necessity of going through the formal steps involved.

    The first step is loving the sinner, rather than ostracizing and condemning them out of hand. I am hopeful that the new policy language will reflect a more thoughtful approach than punish, punish, punish.

  5. Faithful Latter-day Saints will never leave the church. But will the church leave them? Harsh, but I don’t really take vitamin supplements either.

    Ironically, we’re counseled continuously to stand for what we believe, regardless of the pressure. I’m no longer confident that we won’t be defiling the temple with SSM in my lifetime. If that’s too soon, maybe in my children’s lifetime, and we’ll end up accepting SSM in the general membership in the next 20 years.

    Maybe the brethren can see that lgbtq is just a fad that thrives on self-created opposition? Once the opposition dies down their fires will die out like brush fire with nothing to sustain it?

  6. It seems like its a reaction to the bad PR. I find it troubling they would make a change because of that.

  7. “Assuming that this is simply a return to the old language in the Handbook, which could not be the case, then disciplinary councils should be held for anyone in a same sex marriage. As noted above, councils are mandatory when there is a pattern of serious transgressions. Homosexual conduct and homosexual marriage are serious transgressions, and in the case of marriage an ongoing and continuing one. Councils are also mandatory when a serious transgression is widely known. In the case of same sex marriage, unless they are keeping it a secret from the ward, it will be widely known and must require discipline.”

    I think this may be a bit more “hard line” (for lack of a better term) than the announcement suggests. I do not know of any stakes that routinely attempt to hold disciplinary councils for every heterosexual member couple living in their boundaries that are living together without the benefit of marriage. The sin (sex outside of a marriage recognized by the Church) is (essentially) the same. The big difference is the remedy to the situation, in the heterosexual case the couple can always just get married. from the Church’s perspective homosexual couples don’t have that option as a way to “remedy” the situation. I think it will be interes6ting to hear exactly how the Church Leaders have decided to handle this situation. I look forward to hearing what is said in General Conference.

  8. Given that the November 2015 policy regarding children of LGBT adults paralleled the language regarding children of polygamous adults, I was curious to see if both policies were altered, or just the LGBT policy.

    For those outraged at the November 2015 LGBT policy, they would have served themselves to have stood up for the rights of polygamous families to have their children blessed and baptized. Given that the polygamists and their children were sanctioned without outcry, it should not have surprised anyone that another form of union that colors outside of traditional lines was treated equally.

    That said, human interaction is conversation, where motion is measured in part by relative distance rather than absolutes.

  9. One of the hazards of writing something like this on limited information is that there is limited information. I wrote this (typos and all) in order to make it clearer what was actually happening, and what didn’t happen, and to give context to the whole discussion for those that didn’t have it. I expect that this is just the tip of the iceberg, and that there will be guidance about the hows, whens and conditions for moving forward with baby blessings and baptisms. I worry that many will suffer metaphorical whiplash, not from what comes out from the Church, but due to the fact that so many are overstating what has happened, and what was actually announced.

  10. I’ve seen a lot of ugly gloating on the internet today about this, from those that style themselves as “allies” etc. Here is a post we did back in 2016 on the original 2015 policy/handbook leak. It’s worth noting we believe in revelation and that our prophet and other leaders are in constant communication with the Lord. If we have a testimony of D&C 1: 38, then we have a testimony that the things our leaders tell us, teach us, and the changes that are made in the church from time to time are from the Lord.

    https://www.millennialstar.org/elder-nelson-makes-clear-the-lds-policy-on-same-sex-attraction-is-the-will-of-the-lord/?fbclid=IwAR2Jdt4z1iiwpIArS2fsEdwPVKWF4xke-_W5R2Eh98_JPRYh89nVDtH4lwo

  11. Lehcarjt,

    You expressed skepticism that “living by and affirming certain doctrines is really that valued or necessary.” I tend to agree that in many areas the membership of the Church is getting quite lax in this regard. I do not see it as a good thing. There are certain things that the men we sustain as prophets and apostles are remarkably consistent about. Gay marriage is one of those things. If members entertain the thought or come to the conclusion that the leaders are wrong on this issue, they are essentially denying that the Church is led by divine revelation and strikes at the core of any testimony that might involve any consideration of the Church being what it says it is. Deviations from this is at best the seeds of apostasy. At best.

  12. Kevinf,

    I you think that Church discipline is all about “punish, punish, punish” than I am sorry. In every case, there is a desire to help people to repent, but there is also a need to follow the directions of the Savior. I can’t help but wonder how the stake president mentioned in your comment would react to the Savior’s admonition in 3 Nephi 18:31 that those that will not repent should not be numbered among the flock? The manner in which you presented his position seems to be contradicted not only by the Handbook, but also the scriptures.

  13. Meg,

    I do find it interesting that the Church’s announcement leaves open the idea that any nonmember (not just the lgbt ones) can ask for a baby to be blessed, and I suspect that the Handbook, whenever it gets leaked, will simply make a distinction between “faithful active members” on one hand, “nonmembers” on the other, with perhaps a middle ground for “unfaithful or inactive members,” with different guidelines for each that reflect the likelihood of the gospel actually being taught in the respective homes. And not just any gospel, but the actual Gospel as revealed to modern prophets and set forth in the teachings of the modern prophets, as too many “active” members no longer seem to subscribe to it.

  14. The polygamist situation and the LGBT situations are totally different. The polygamists hold as an article of faith that the Church no longer possesses the necessary keys to administer and govern the Church and that those keys were given to the polygamists as a result of the rejection of polygamy. Thus, there is a very significant doctrinal problem with polygamists joining the Church.
    LGBT individuals, on the other hand, are committing serious sin. However, they generally do not have problems with the authority claims that the Church professes. Indeed, most accept those claims to apostolic authority and therefore want their children to participate in the Church because of those claims.
    Comparison of polygamists and LGBT folks therefore is inapt. The authority claim that polygamists raise is vastly different from the sin at issue with LGBT couples.

  15. Andrew, that’s not exactly right. If the polygamous groups didn’t acknowledge priesthood authority, they wouldn’t WANT their kids baptized. Some I know do.

    The reality is, the polygamous types, just like the LGBT types, both think they know the answer, and both think the church should support their answer and that the church has made a mistake at some point in the past that they hope God will correct. Period.

  16. Hi Andrew,

    The reason I even knew this was an issue today (I don’t really follow the news) is that a relative who is LGBT was expressly proclaiming how they do not accept the claims that prophets have any authority.

    Clearly A is not B. On the other hand A and B are similar. To deny that A and B are similar is to say “my issue should be addressed but the issues of other similar groups are not valid.”

  17. The parallel that Meg is making is the same parallel Elder Christofferson made.

  18. KevinF, you wrote:

    “I am hopeful that the new policy language will reflect a more thoughtful approach than punish, punish, punish.”

    This is a very strange comment. Who exactly believes in “punish, punish, punish?” The Brethren? Members of stake presidents and bishoprics? You?

    I find it extremely difficult to believe you have actually served on a high council if you believe that the purpose of this councils is “punish, punish, punish.” And in fact in your own comment you contradict this by pointing out that your own stake president didn’t believe it. Church councils are the exact opposite of “punish, punish, punish.” They are really about “love, love, love.”

    So, I am left to surmise that there must be some unknown group of Church members out there, people perhaps you don’t even know, who are going around thinking “punish, punish, punish” like members of the Inquisition. Is that how you see your fellow latter-day Saints?

    Bottom line: I would encourage you to be more charitable towards your fellow Church members. Throwing out contentious lines claiming some people are about “punish, punish, punish” is simply not helpful to anyone.

  19. In regards to my “punish, punish, punish” comment. I have had conversations with many people about the repentance process, and some take what could be interpreted as the hard line, in effect using the logic that the Lord can not look upon sin with the least allowance, therefore, so should we. As I stated, my experience sitting on may of those disciplinary councils (but none specifically about LGBTQ issues) is that it is a process of repentance that often results, due to the seriousness of the sin, in being disfellowshipped or excommunicated. That process worked best when the subject was a willing participant in that process, and recognized the need for that penalty. I was fortunate enough to sit in on councils that resulted in reinstating blessings or rebaptism, and I can’t begin to describe my feelings when someone comes through that process successfully. But if often takes a long time, even years, to get someone to that spot. At any rate, I will admit that line was not charitable, and I withdraw it.

    I may have drawn the wrong conclusion from the original post, which seemed to indicate that even though the baptism of the children of a same sex marriage can now be baptized and receive various blessings, the partners in such an arrangement should still expect to be subject to excommunication for immoral behavior, just not for apostasy. If so, I apologize. These unions may result in that, or may not, depending on the circumstances. The final say in such matters has been returned to local leaders, where such decisions can be made based on individual circumstances and inspiration, just like any other sin. That, I believe, is a good thing.

    And as to the comparison to polygamous groups, I would make this distinction. For the most part, the children in polygamous situations are not being raised and attending meetings with the regular membership of the church, but are often in organized groups, who as a matter of doctrine, have separated themselves from the mainstream Church. That lends itself to a definition of apostasy much more than gay marriage partners trying to attend their regular residential ward and raise their children there.

    Thanks for letting me be a part of the discussion.

  20. In the absence of an explanation by someone involved in making the recent decision to reverse the November 2015 “ban”, the best we can do is guess. My hunch is that the “ban” occurred in the context of the June 2015 Supreme Court decision to legalize gay/lesbian marriage. Immediately after, I began noticing in podcasts and blog posts that many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were voicing their opinion in favor of giving full Church/Temple privileges to actively practicing gay/lesbian members of our community who entered same sex legal marriages. The reasoning behind this was that same-gender sexual activity was no longer a sin if it occurred in the context of a legal marriage covenant. After all, simplistically thinking, we do obey, honor and sustain the law. I think the brethren said not only “no”, but “heck no” to this line of reasoning by instituting the 2015 “ban”. I also think that they displayed the wisdom of Solomon, given the immediate pressures of that time, in deciding to give precedence to the legal sanctity of the same-sex family over the usual encouragement of age 8 baptisms which might ultimately conflict with the emotional harmony of the family itself. Experience in the years since have shown that this practice also created its own problems, not anticipated in 2015. The brethren, in my opinion, made an inspired decision in 2015 based on an unprecedented national situation which was confusing at least some members of the Church. In 2019, the brethren made an inspired course correction based on recent experience, which has occurred so many times in our history.

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