Why Are the Children of Gay Parents Newly Unwelcome in the Mormon Church? (Updated)
Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs. [Matthew 19:14]
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’
And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ [Matthew 25:37–40]
If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. [Matthew 18:6]
Last week, news leaked of two changes to the Mormon General Handbook of Instructions, the manual with which the Church hierarchy from Salt Lake City specifies in minute detail how the congregations of Mormonism are to be run everywhere in the world.
In the first update, the Handbook specifies that a disciplinary council (leading to disfellowship or excommunication) is now mandatory for gay members who choose to marry. (By contrast, it is not mandatory for “attempted murder, forcible rape, [or] sexual abuse.”)
It is the second update that concerns us here, new Handbook section 16.13:
A natural or adopted child of a parent living in a same-gender relationship, whether the couple is married or cohabiting, may not receive a name and a blessing.
A natural or adopted child of a parent living in a same-gender relationship, whether the couple is married or cohabiting, may be baptized and confirmed, ordained, or recommended for missionary service only as follows:
A mission president or a stake president may request approval from the Office of the First Presidency to baptize and confirm, ordain, or recommend missionary service for a child of a parent who has lived or is living in a same-gender relationship when he is satisfied by personal interviews that both of the following requirements are met:
1. The child accepts and is committed to live the teachings and doctrine of the Church, and specifically disavows the practice of same-gender cohabitation and marriage.
2. The child is of legal age and does not live with a parent who has lived or currently lives in a same-gender cohabitation relationship or marriage.
Today, the First Presidency updated this policy in an open letter to local leaders. The sanctions outlined in the Handbook remain the same, but the scope of which children it applies to has been narrowed:
The provisions of Handbook 1, Section 16.13, that restrict priesthood ordinances for minors, apply only to those children whose primary residence is with a couple living in a same-gender marriage or similar relationship. As always, local leaders may request further guidance in particular instances when they have questions.
When a child living with such a same-gender couple has already been baptized and is actively participating in the Church, provisions of Section 16.13 do not require that his or her membership activities or priesthood privileges be curtailed or that further ordinances be withheld. Decisions about any future ordinances for such children should be made by local leaders with their prime consideration being the preparation and best interests of the child.
How Does the Church Explain This?
Apostle D. Todd Christofferson explained in an interview with the Church public affairs director, Michael Otterson:
This policy originates out of [compassion]. It originates from a desire to protect children in their innocence and in their minority years. When, for example, there is the formal blessing and naming of a child in the Church, which happens when a child has parents who are members of the Church, it triggers a lot of things. First, a membership record for them. It triggers the assignment of visiting and home teachers. It triggers an expectation that they will be in Primary and the other Church organizations. And that is likely not going to be an appropriate thing in the home setting, in the family setting where they’re living as children where their parents are a same-sex couple. We don’t want there to be the conflicts that that would engender. We don’t want the child to have to deal with issues that might arise where the parents feel one way and the expectations of the Church are very different. And so with the other ordinances on through baptism and so on, there’s time for that if, when a child reaches majority, he or she feels like that’s what they want and they can make an informed and conscious decision about that. Nothing is lost to them in the end if that’s the direction they want to go. In the meantime, they’re not placed in a position where there will be difficulties, challenges, conflicts that can injure their development in very tender years.
The situation with polygamist families, for example, and same-sex marriage couples and families really has a parallel. For generations we’ve had these same kinds of policies that relate to children in polygamist families that we wouldn’t go forward with these ordinances while they’re in that circumstance and before they reach their majority. That’s the same sort of situation we’re dealing with here, so it’s something we have had a history with. It’s a practice that really is analogous that’s been the case over many generations.
With same-sex marriage now legal in the United States and some other nations, the Church felt the need specifically to address such marriages in the Handbook to draw a firm line and encourage consistency among local leaders. In particular, Church leaders are concerned for children–whether biologically born to one of the partners, adopted or medically conceived. In reality, very few same-sex couples would bring children for the formal Church ordinance of naming and blessing, since this creates a formal membership record. But Church leaders want to avoid putting little children in a potential tug-of-war between same-sex couples at home and teachings and activities at church.
This sensitivity to family circumstances is practiced elsewhere. For example, the Church doesn’t baptize minor children without parental consent, even if the children want to be associated with their LDS friends. A married man or woman isn’t baptized if the spouse objects. Missionaries don’t proselytize in most Muslim countries or in Israel, where there are particular sensitivities with family. In some African and other nations where polygamy is practiced, anyone whose parents practice polygamy needs special permission for baptism so they know that a practice that is culturally acceptable for many in the region is not acceptable in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Is this Explanation Consistent with the Gospel of Christ?
I have advocated applying critical thinking to truth claims in the past. Let’s see what light some probing questions can shed here.
Are children of gay parents truly in an uniquely conflicted position with respect to Church membership?
Judging from the past few days on social media, most Mormons picture a hypothetical gay couple, both nonmembers, tracted out by the missionaries. It is true that the child of such a couple might be a poor candidate for baptism, given the Church’s teachings against homosexuality and gay marriage. But is that really who this policy affects?
My three beautiful children are the product of my former marriage to a gay man. My ex-husband is an incredible human being with a very generous and compassionate heart. I loved him when we were married and I still love him to this day.
When my ex-husband and I divorced we agreed that our children would continue to be raised LDS. While I know my ex-husband has a number of issues with the LDS church to his credit he has been incredibly supportive of raising our children LDS. He has attended baptisms, we have always worked out our custody schedule so that the kids can attend church, he does not disparage the church to the children, and is supportive of the children as they advance in the church. This only contributes to the continued feelings of love I have for him because he has chosen not to let his personal feelings toward the LDS church impact his relationship with the children or with me. Likewise I don’t disparage my ex-husband and his partner to my children. I NEVER want my children to have to choose between their religion and their father. My ex-husband is the father of my kids and they LOVE him.
[My son] Andrew was baptized in February. Andrew and Sophia will continue to go to the LDS church every other week as they spend time with their mother. These kids (and thousands just like them) will still be going to the Mormon church regardless of the fact that they have two dads (or two moms).
Andrew chose to get baptized. We had many talks about it and it was something he wanted to do. His gay dads supported that choice, we were at the baptism, so was his gay uncle. Two of his LDS aunts spoke at the baptism, and two of his LDS grandpas performed the baptism and confirmation. The only part that looked any different from any other baptism is that the stake saw two dads standing and supporting their kid and having a happy, healthy, loving, family.
Now if Sophia chooses to be baptized she will be told no. How is that to make sense to her?
Tiffany and Landon, Andrew and Sophia are the face of who this policy affects. It is the thousands of children of members who followed the counsel of Church leaders to marry heterosexually, only to find out that was not possible to maintain against their nature.
Do these policies actually protect children from conflict?
Clearly, preventing children from participating in Church ordinances when they are already attending church with the approval of both parents only serves to tell them they are second-class citizens, and protects them from nothing.
Further belying this justification is the disavowal requirement for a child of gay parents to eventually join the Church. A few months ago, D. Todd Christofferson, the same apostle in the interview, explained to the media that members are free to support gay marriage. Why impose a requirement on their children, that does not apply to the children of heterosexuals? It almost feels vindictive. It is certainly not protective. Far from promoting peace, it adds to conflict in the home.
Are there alternatives to such harsh measures if protecting children were truly the goal?
The handbook already requires the consent of custodial parents before baptizing a minor. Surely if protecting children from conflict were our primary concern, we would extend this policy to include the consent of non-custodial parents as well, whether gay or straight.
Creating a special class for the children of gay parents is neither necessary (because many gay parents are or were Mormons themselves, and approve of their children’s participation), nor sufficient (because many non-gay parents harbor even deeper distrust of the Church) to protect children from conflict in the home.
Is “nothing lost” by making children of gay parents wait ten years to be baptized?
The Church teaches that we should not wait to baptize our children because “When we are baptized and keep the covenants of baptism, the Lord promises to give us daily guidance and the help of the Holy Ghost.”
Is this guidance important for some children, but not others? Has the Church repealed the truth taught by Peter and Paul that God is no respecter of persons? If anything, children raised in such close proximity to “a particularly grievous sin” surely need the guidance of the Holy Ghost even more than others.
The claim that nothing lost by waiting also flies in the face of Church policy on temple ordinances, where members who are first married civilly — so that (for instance) non-member family members can attend the wedding — must wait a year before being sealed. This is strongly discouraged.
(Note also that there is nothing at all doctrinal about this year-long waiting period, which is in fact waived in Europe and many other parts of the world. Why does this policy still exist in America if the Church is so sensitive and concerned about avoiding family conflict?)
Is the analogy to children of polygamist households warranted?
It is true that the new sanctions applied to children of gay parents was inspired by the ones for children of polygamous families. Here is what the Handbook says:
Children of parents who have practiced or are practicing plural marriage contrary to the law must receive approval from the First Presidency before they may be baptized and confirmed. The mission president may request may request this approval from the Office of the First Presidency when he is satisfied that all three of the following requirements are met.
(1) The children accept the teachings and doctrines of the Church.
(2) The children repudiate the teachings upon which their parents based their practice of plural marriage.
(3) Minor children are not living in a home where polygamy is being taught or practiced
The LDS officially disavowed polygamy in 1890, but had to do so again in 1904 after it’s own apostles were still marrying plural wives or performing plural marriages. The shift from being a polygamous church to a non-polygamous church was a long and messy one.
One of the consequences of this [transition] was that families that were second and sometimes third generation polygamous families were now left in a rough spot. Their parents had been told the principle was essential for salvation and they had suffered and sacrificed for it, but the new policies reflected a different story. It was messy.
Families did the best they could, but it was difficult and folks spoke out and acted out. I imagine the LDS church leaders were in a very, very difficult spot. How do you take something so essential to the shaping of your church and your history and now remove yourself from it as fast as you can because of legal and financial pressure from the federal government? How do you do that without damage? It must have been an awful time for all. Policies and procedures began to develop and in the 1930’s and 40’s we started to see policies harder enforced.
A policy was eventually put into place that would not allow children belonging to parents practicing polygamy (presumably unsanctioned) into the church unless they renounced their parents and their beliefs. This was harsh medicine to try and remedy a very complicated history, but it has been in place for some time. If you are LDS, you’ll be familiar with a temple recommend question about associating with “apostate groups,” which was born out of this same struggle.
Today, the LDS church announced a similar policy, that I’m sure many of you have seen. Children belonging to gay couples will not be welcome at God’s table. At least not in Mormon heaven, but maybe when they’re older and can disavow their parents. Of course this policy is harsh and unforgiving. In fact, it doesn’t make sense, especially in relation to the polygamy restriction. The history is too different in these regards to even believe they parallel one another. There were no existing gay families that had been sealed by prophets or apostles that needed to be accounted for. There were no gay bishops secretly trying to seduce their ward members into gay sealings once a ban was put in place. There were no apostles in the quorum sanctioning gay sealings while others were excommunicating those being sealed. It just isn’t the same.
One final distinction is that the policy of not baptizing “children of parents who have practiced or are practicing plural marriage” only applies when that marriage is “contrary to the law.” Ironically, new sanctions are being invented for gay relationships only now that same-sex marriage has become legal in the United States.
Bonus: do the children of gay parents need to be more mature to understand the seriousness of their covenants, and Mormonism’s incompatibility with their parents’ lifestyle?
This was not covered by Christofferson, but it is a popular explanation offered up by Mormons looking for a way to understand this new policy. Unfortunately, it is easy to see how this is also inadequate justification:
- Baby blessings are explicitly off limits under the new policy, but no covenants are involved. Nor am I aware of any new covenants made during missionary service, which is also called out.
- While eight is the canonical age of accountability, my daughter still believed in Santa Claus when I baptized her at that age. It might well be best to not baptize minors at all (I understand this is the policy of the Jehovah’s Witnesses) but there is no justification for making up special restrictions for the children of gay parents. And as noted above, if being in close proximity to grievous sin makes covenants more important, then surely you also need the guidance of the Holy Ghost as made available after baptism more, not less, than other children.
What is the Real Reason Behind the New Policy?
We have seen that the Church’s stated reasons for the new policy are neither sufficient to justify it, nor consistent with other Church policies.
What, then, would drive this change? I have seen several explanations proposed, some of which make more sense than others.
The policy is a preemptive move to avoid lawsuits seeking temple sealings for same-sex couples
The free exercise clause of the first amendment is firmly understood to protect exactly this kind of religious freedom. Again, the Church is led by and employs too many lawyers to make decisions based on this kind of misunderstanding.
The Church is deliberately trying to drive out progressive Mormons (“separating the wheat from the tares”)
This was far too sloppily done to be a deliberate campaign. The news broke after the Handbook changes were leaked. The Church was caught off guard — their public relations team first promised a response by Friday afternoon, then repeatedly delayed it until finally publishing the Christofferson interview late at night. A planned campaign would have had a press release ready to go and leaders prepared with talking points for the media.
The Church wants to strengthen its legal case for (limited) discrimination against gays in Utah
In March, Utah passed an antidiscrimination law with strong carve outs to exempt religious institutions like the Church.
This new policy could be a move to strengthen the justification for these exceptions by emphasizing how core condemnation of homosexuality is to the Church’s identity, the way nineteenth century leaders emphasized the importance of polygamy to Mormon theology as part of their legal strategy to mount a first amendment lawsuit against anti-polygamy laws.
However, to achieve this goal it should not be necessary to penalize the children of gay parents. Making discipline mandatory for gay marriages would have been sufficient.
The Church wants to eliminate sympathy for homosexuals among the vast majority of orthodox members
Blogger Stephen Jackson writes,
Children of same-sex parents are naturally going to accept gay marriage, and children are more accepting of gay rights if they have friends who are gay. By preventing children from same-sex relationships from obtaining church membership, it becomes clear that church leaders are trying to stem the rapid rise of acceptance of gay rights among young people.
There is some strong evidence in favor of this theory. The lack of an expiration on homosexual activity in the distant past, the disavowal requirement, the extension of the ban to non-saving-ordinances like baby blessings — all of these signify an effort to designate gays as Others, to make them less comfortable being part of the Church and heterosexual members less comfortable with them in turn.
Pseudonymous blogger TT from Faith Promoting Rumor points to some further evidence from the 2008 Church publication, The Divine Institution of Marriage:
In this statement, the church outlines its belief that the children of same-sex relationships will be infected with dangerous ideas by their parents, such as a lack of clear gender boundaries and the idea that sex and procreation are linked. The “moral character of children” in same-sex relationships is treated as highly suspect. The document further outlines the fears that acceptance of same-sex marriage will lead to “gender confusion” throughout society: “When marriage is undermined by gender confusion and by distortions of its God-given meaning, the rising generation of children and youth will find it increasingly difficult to develop their natural identities as men or women.”
My hunch is that the church wants to protect its membership from these children of same-sex relationships, not protect these children from being caught between church and home.
Church leaders are doubtless aware that support for gay marriage has grown incredibly swiftly since its 2008 support for California’s Proposition 8. Even among Mormons, support has grown by 50% in just seven years. Drastic measures may be justified in an effort to stop or roll back that support.
The Church wants to increase its distinctiveness
Psychologist Michael Nielsen takes a higher-level view:
Churches evaluate their performance in the religious marketplace. They seek to find an optimal balance between distinctiveness and legitimacy. Too much legitimacy and the church appears to be like any other church, not offering anything particularly unique to adherents. But, too much distinctiveness and the church finds itself outside the bounds of acceptability, liable to be the subject of legislation or other sanctions that limit its ability to function.
[With this policy, the Church] is increasing its distinctiveness. More traditionally-minded Mormons applaud the move, seeing it as an opportunity to separate the wheat from the chaff. Liberal Mormons do not, as they have held out hope that the church would continue making incremental moves toward accepting lesbians and gays.
LDS sociologist Armand Mauss has extensively explored the distinctiveness/legitimacy tension (which he calls retrenchment and assimilation, respectively) in The Angel and the Beehive and Rethinking Retrenchment and finds a high degree of influence on Church policies.
Does he cry unto any, saying: Depart from me?
Whatever ones feelings are about same-sex marriage, and I as an Orthodox Jew of course understand the religious and Biblical prohibition, it goes without saying that this has nothing to do with people still having a relationship with God. You can be gay and you can go to church. You can be gay and you can give charity. You can be gay and you can practice acts of kindness. You can be gay and you can pray. What is the message of the church now by saying that people in same-sex marriages and their children can no longer be members of the church? Are they saying that this one single aspect of their life is so all-encompassing that it negates the possibility of any relationship with God?
I call on the leaders of the Mormon Church to reconsider their new policy. Though they oppose gay marriage they must never oppose gay men and women and must certainly never be so cruel as to punish their children.
The end does not justify the means, and the explanation offered by the Church in justification of this new policy is thoroughly unconvincing from every perspective. Let us hope this indefensible policy change is reversed quickly.