SALT LAKE CITY — In the past two years, Nathan Kitchen has revealed to his five children that he’s gay, gone through a divorce with his wife and grappled with how to stay in a religion that doesn’t condone his lifestyle.
Now comes the toughest task: Telling his children he could be kicked out of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints if he someday marries a man, and warning his two youngest, 11 and 15, that they might be barred from serving a mission under new church rules.
“It’s almost like they now have to choose between a gay father and a church that they love,” said Kitchen, a 47-year-old dentist from Gilbert, Arizona. “This is almost too much to bear.”
The changes to the Mormon handbook – disseminated this week to local church leaders around the world – say being in a same-sex marriage warrants ousting from the religion and that children of gay parents must wait until they’re 18 and disavow homosexual relationships to be baptized.
The revisions triggered a wave of anger, confusion and sadness for a growing faction of LGBT-supportive Mormons who were buoyed in recent years by church leaders’ calls for more love and understanding for LGBT members.
Mormon officials said the goal was to provide clarity to lay leaders who run congregations. The religion has long been on record as opposing same-sex marriages, church spokesman Eric Hawkins noted.
In a video interview posted late Friday night on a church website, Mormon leader D. Todd Christofferson said the changes were prompted by questions that have risen since the U.S. Supreme Court made gay marriage legal throughout the United States.
He said the church considers same-sex marriage a particularly egregious sin that requires mandatory church discipline.
“There was the need for a distinction to be made between what may be legal and what may be the law of the church and the law of the Lord,” said Christofferson, a member of the religion’s governing Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “It’s a matter of being clear. It’s a matter of understanding right and wrong. It’s a matter of a firm policy that doesn’t allow for question and doubt.”
Christofferson said the revisions are meant to protect children from being torn between their parents’ teachings and those of the church. If they choose to be baptized as adults, there’s time for an informed and conscious decision, he said.
The new rules stipulate that children of parents in gay or lesbian relationships – be it marriage or just living together – can no longer receive blessings as infants or be baptized around age 8. They can be baptized and serve missions once they turn 18, but only if they:
• Disavow the practice of same-sex relationships.
• No longer live with gay parents.
• Get approval from their local leader and the highest leaders at church headquarters in Salt Lake City.
The church views these acts as promises to follow its doctrine that bind people to the faith.
Scott Gordon, president of FairMormon, a volunteer organization that supports the church, said he understands why some find the changes jarring and consider them mean-spirited toward children.
But he believes they’re intended to protect gay couples and their families by allowing the kids to mature and make the difficult decision at 18 about whether to become fully invested in a religion that holds as a root tenet that their parents’ lifestyle is a sin.
“The idea of family is not just a peripheral issue in the Mormon church. It’s core doctrine. It’s a central idea that we can be sealed together as a family and live together eternally,” Gordon said. “That only works with heterosexual couples.”
The changes align with the way the church addresses children in polygamous families, Christofferson said in the video.
That fact wasn’t lost on Mormons interpreting the new rules. “I am no better now than an illegal polygamist,” Kitchen said.
The handbook revisions also for the first time list being in a same-sex relationship as an offense that can lead to being ousted from the religion. This is a category known as apostasy, which until now has been reserved primarily for people who practice polygamy, teach inaccurate doctrine or publicly defy guidance to church leaders.
Last month, two high-ranking church leaders delivered speeches that gave LGBT advocates hope that the faith was moving toward greater acceptance. The leaders reiterated the religion’s commitment to promoting families led by married heterosexual couples, but it also urged people not to shun those with opposing views.
That message of “fairness of all” appeared to distance the faith from the blowback that came when it was a major backer of California’s gay marriage ban in 2008.
Some find the new rules contradictory to these recent church messages, including guidance from a church website created in 2012 to urge more compassion for LGBT people. On it, the church says: “With love and understanding, the church reaches out to all God’s children, including our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.”
“It feels like they are extending an olive branch and hitting you with it,” said Wendy Montgomery, who is Mormon and has a 17-year-old gay son. “It’s like this emotional whiplash.”
Montgomery is in the legion of Mormons who have grown more accepting of homosexuality in recent years. But the acceptance rates still put the religion among the least accepting among major religions, a new survey from the Pew Research Center shows. In the survey done last year, 36 percent of Mormons said homosexuality should be accepted by society. That’s up from 24 percent in 2007, the last time Pew conducted its U.S. Religious Landscape Study.
Support for gay marriage is lower, with just 25 percent of Latter-day Saints approving such unions.
Montgomery said news of the new rules left her son sobbing and forced her and her husband to consider leaving a religion they’ve been desperately trying to stay in, despite a harsh reception to their son coming out.
Montgomery echoed a response shared by many on social media: She can somewhat understand the hard stance on same-sex marriage, but she can’t comprehend singling out gay couples’ children.
“We just put a scarlet letter on these kids,” Montgomery said. “This isn’t my church. I don’t see God in it. I don’t see divinity it. It just feels evil.”