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In protest over gay rights, Mormons give up their church membership

In protest over gay rights, Mormons give up their church membership
A pride flag flies in front of the Salt LakeTemple in Salt Lake City during a protest byMormons who resigned en masse Saturdayfrom thechurch. (George Frey / Getty Images)

It came regularly, lifting over the din of a bustling city park, piercing the wail of a passing ambulance, a steady rhythm marking time and counting souls.

Thwock! Another Mormon who could now officially call herself an ex-Mormon.

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Thwock! Another person lost to heaven, according to Mormon theology.

Each time notary public Linsey Harkness pushed down on her 2000 PLUS Self-Inking Stamp with a Microban-infused handle — Thwock! — she certified a letter from a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who was leaving the faith.

It is not a matter taken lightly by the hundreds of people who lined up Saturday at Harkness' table at a city park to officially separate themselves from the church, part of a rally supporting the mass resignations of Mormons. Dozens who took the dramatic action said they had finally been pushed too far.

The park was a 15-minute walk from Temple Square outside the Salt Lake Temple, the meeting place of the church's First Presidency and Quorum of Twelve Apostles. At the square, the protesters mailed the letters formally severing their ties with the church.

Earlier this month, an excommunicated Mormon podcast host named John Dehlin revealed a letter from the church to its lay leaders, clarifying that the children of same-sex couples would not be allowed to be baptized until they turn 18. The same letter reiterated that Mormons in same-sex marriage are considered apostates and could be excommunicated.

A groundswell of opposition took form quickly, and by Saturday, hundreds of people walked their letters of resignation to the Salt Lake Temple. They made up just a tiny portion of the fast-growing church, which claims 15 million members worldwide.

The LDS leadership has a reputation for seeking out its inactive members and encouraging them to rejoin the flock. But to formally sever ties with the church is to say that a person is rejecting the Mormon vision of the afterlife, and potentially devastating family members who live their lives so close to some of the faith's holiest sites.

Eric Loertscher couldn't wait to leave the church.

Born into a Mormon family, he had been questioning his faith for more than a decade. But he wasn't sure he would leave until the church made a concerted effort to support and fund California's Proposition 8, the statewide measure that banned same-sex marriage. It was later struck down by the courts.

"It's satisfying, but it's also upsetting," said Loertscher of his decision to leave. He pointed to Proposition 8 as one of the final straws compelling him to act. "My family is very opposed to me doing this, but I didn't think things were going to get better."

The church issued a news release to reporters Friday, pointing out that fewer than 4% of those who pledged to resign identified as practicing Mormons. The church also noted that the letter merely emphasized existing church doctrine and did not create any new policies.

Many in attendance on Saturday said they had been considering leaving the church for years, but only felt compelled to formally sever ties after the same-sex marriage policy was made public. Sylvia Lesser has friends in same-sex relationships who are now under threat of excommunication and whose children cannot be baptized.

"It's mean and it's spiteful," said Lesser, who carried a sign that read "This 'Policy' Harms All Of Us!!!"

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Relations between the gay and LDS communities seemed to be warming after the bitterness of Proposition 8. Five years of back-channel negotiations led to an LDS endorsement of a Utah anti-discrimination law, which passed this year.

Then the church issued the letter on its same-sex marriage policy, and on Tuesday, a juvenile court judge ordered a 9-month-old girl to be removed from her lesbian foster parents' care and placed with an opposite-sex couple.

The judge's order sparked a significant, nationwide backlash. He rescinded the order Friday, and though his initial order had no direct connection to the church, it contributed to the general tension between the gay community and the LDS. Those raw feelings were on display Saturday.

"Just what those parents felt, even for a week, is awful," said Brooke Swallow, an organizer of the mass resignation.

Such mass resignations have taken place before, the most recent ones beginning in 2012 and continuing each year. In July, nearly 100 people turned in their resignation letters to the church. The count was far greater on Saturday, though organizers did not have a final tally as of that afternoon.

Married couple Damien and Shelby Steadman both resigned from the church Saturday. Damien Steadman is transgender, and he said he wanted to express to the church that its policy was costing it members.

"If we had kids together and they wanted to be LDS, I wouldn't want them to make that decision, but I would support it," he sad. "Now, they can't. For them to be castigated and cast aside because of me being trans, that's not right."

The Steadmans said they were pushed to the decision after the policy letter underscored what years of church teachings had told them — they were not wanted by the church unless they were willing to live a life that felt like a lie.

In the end, the practical part of leaving was easy.

The Steadmans walked their resignation papers from Harkness' notary table to a line at least 100 people long, where people waited for an attorney would endorse their form. Then they headed off to mail their letter, the percussive clap of the notary's stamp marking their steps to Temple Square.

Twitter: @nigelduara

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