By Kent Larsen
Fundamentalists Protest, ex-Mormons Convene During LDS Conference
SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH -- While leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints called for more tolerance of others during the Church's
semi-annual General Conference, right-wing and fundamentalist groups outside
protested the Church's policies on homosexuality and abortion, calling them
too lenient. And, just a few blocks away, a group of former Mormons held
their own conference, exploring how to live with LDS Church members.
The most vocal protestors were from the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka,
Kansas. They claimed that the September 11th attacks on the World Trade
Center and the Pentagon were retribution from God for the U.S. accepting
homosexuality "God hates America" said the group's pastor, Fred Phelps.
"This country's wholly given over to the homosexual agenda. The group claims
that the LDS Church is too lenient on homosexuals, condemning the practice
with words, not actions. "They say they are opposed, that homosexuality is a
sin, but they don't act like it's a sin. We know what's going on."
The group's claims stand in stark contrast to LDS political efforts in
recent years, including substantial donations and grass-roots efforts to
fight same-gender marriage and support of the Boy Scouts of America's
policies, challenged in a recent U.S. Supreme Court case. These actions have
drawn severe criticism from gay-rights groups and led a recent Newsweek
article to characterize the Church's position on homosexuality as one of "no
The LDS Church took issue with both Newsweek's characterization and with the
claims of the Westboro Baptist Church protestors, "God loves all of his
children," said Harold Brown, managing director of the LDS welfare system,
"I think we have a consistent doctrine, one of love and concern for people."
The Westboro Baptist Church protest drew a counter-protest from a group of
LDS Church members, including Jane Szucs, who said her group turned out to
provide balance to the issue, "We're here because of the intolerance, not
the general assembly," she said. "We have no desire to disrupt that." Misty
River, another in the counter-protest group added, "As long as there's hate,
we want to be here with peace."
The mix of protests also included a group of "independent fundamentalists,"
former LDS Church members, who claimed that the LDS Church's position on
abortion was too tolerant, "It's better for a woman to die than to commit a
murder," said Mike Bingham, one of the group. He wants the LDS Church to
impose a strict moratorium on abortions. Church policy allows abortions only
in cases of rape, incest, endangerment to the mother, and if the fetus is
Public reaction to the groups was generally confused, "They have signs that
say they're protesting abortion or gays, as if we accept abortion," said
John Atkin, who was baffled by the protests, "I'm just confused." A
construction worker who saw the Westboro Baptist Church group protesting
Friday night near the University of Utah expressed disbelief at the protest,
"This is unbelievable. There's so much hate in the world, and they're
Meanwhile, inside the Conference, Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of
the Twelve Apostles addressed tolerance, calling on church members to be the
most loving, kindest, most tolerant and respectful of others, regardless of
religion, nationality, race and culture. He said there is no room in the
church for exclusivity and asked members to purge from their vocabularies
terms like "non-member" and "non-Mormon," instead identifying people by what
they are, not what they are not.
That same issue had been addressed earlier in the day at a conference by
ex-Mormons, which was covered in national newspapers through an Associated
Press article. The conference, titled "Living in the Fold, but not of the
Fold," tried to help about 80 ex-Mormon attendees adapt to living among LDS
Church members after leaving that church. Speakers at that conference
addressed the way that LDS Church members often treat those that have left
the church, "When people think ex-Mormon, they think anti-Mormon. That's
not it at all," said Natalie Collins, spokeswoman for the conference.
Prominent former LDS Church member Maxine Hanks, who attended the conference
for the first time, tried to portray the bind that former church members
find themselves. citing the "subtle but scathing" snubs she has received
from practicing Mormons, she also said it is difficult to leave completely,
"You never really leave Mormonism. It's a whole culture. You still have
family, friends and colleagues who are Mormon. If you live in Utah, you're
still working in Mormon culture. It's not like leaving another church. It's
an entire world view."
Hanks also expressed hope that the LDS Church and church members would reach
out to former church members, "We're seeing the church sincerely doing more
interfaith work, and it [respecting all segments of Mormon society including
feminists and liberals] is only a small step after that," she said.
The conference for former members heard from Hanks, as well as Steve Benson,
Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for the Arizona Republic and
grandson of Ezra Taft Benson, Sandra Tanner of the Utah Lighthouse Ministry,
and Trent Harris, film maker and author.
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