There should be no compulsion in religion. Surely, right has become distinct from wrong; so whosoever refuses to be led by those who transgress, and believes in Allah, has surely grasped a strong handle which knows no breaking. And Allah is All-Hearing, All-Knowing. (Al Quran 2:257)
Kate Kelly stands frozen at an empty intersection in Salt Lake City. There is no traffic coming in either direction.
“I need to wait for the signal,” she says, “I’m obedient, I’m a Mormon.” She laughs, her eyes twinkling behind her thick, retro-style glasses.
But if Ms Kelly thinks she’s an obedient Mormon, her Church leadership does not. She was excommunicated in June for founding a campaign to ordain women to the priesthood.
“You know, normally excommunication in our Church is for really grave sins like murder and child abuse,” she says. “I was excommunicated for stating a fact, which is that men and women are not equal in our Church.”
In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) – which claims a membership of 15 million worldwide – any male from the age of 12 and “in good standing” can join the priesthood. No female can.
Unlike other churches, including the Church of England which last month agreed to allow women priests to be promoted to bishop, the LDS Church does not have a professional priesthood. It operates what it calls a “lay” clergy – male members take turns to fulfil the roles.
Take the bishop of Ms Kelly’s former ward in Virginia – the man who excommunicated her. He is a lawyer for ExxonMobil.
She is also a lawyer, a human rights lawyer, and she sounds like one as she dissects the process her bishop and other male leaders followed to remove her from the Mormon faith.
“We’re talking about an Inquisition,” she says. “The men who punished me think they are kicking me out of heaven.”
Frankly, there’s a soul at stake here and we’re concerned about that”
Mike Otterson Latter-Day Saints
The 33-year-old clearly does not agree, and she is unrepentant for founding the web-based group, Ordain Women, where several hundred men and women have posted their profiles in support.
While there have been earlier calls for the ordination of Mormon women, Ms Kelly’s group posed a new challenge, using the web and modern, political methods to agitate for change. That prompted the Church leadership to take tough action.
Mike Otterson, the managing director of public affairs for the LDS, says he will not speak specifically about Ms Kelly’s case, but he insists that the excommunication process is always fair, conducted locally, and decided only after careful consideration.
“We often refer to these proceedings as courts of love,” he says.
“We show a great deal of patience, because ultimately, frankly, there’s a soul at stake here and we’re concerned about that.”
He insists that women already have a lot of responsibility in the Church, including the right to preach from the pulpit, but that most women do not seek the priesthood.
Ms Kelly was excommunicated for apostasy. Dictionaries define an apostate as someone who renounces their faith. But in Mormonism questioning church teaching and, “especially encouraging other people to take the same position,” says Mike Otterson, will qualify someone as an “apostate”.