…the pending actions against both people represent the church’s established response to certain forms of dissent. Stretching back to the early years of the church under Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, church leaders have demanded obedience and punished those who publicly challenged their authority. In 1979 the church excommunicated Sonia Johnson, who engaged in public protest against the church’s role in preventing the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. In September 1993 the church disciplined six scholars (known as the “September Six”), several of whom were outspoken feminists.
Mormon excommunications cause tremendous trauma for individuals, families and the church as a whole. Latter-day Saint theology and ritual focus on sealing together couples and families for eternity. Excommunication imperils those sealings. On Ordain Women’s website, Ms. Kelly refers to the penalty as “spiritual death” and “evict[ion] from your forever family.”
Church discipline also means unwanted negative attention for a church that carefully manages its image. Thus, although other church critics also report heightened ecclesiastical pressure, the recent measures probably do not augur a wave of excommunications. Instead, by disciplining Ms. Kelly church leaders hope to quash Ordain Women while permitting and even engaging more moderate voices for change. While the church has on occasion changed course abruptly””as in 1978 when it ended the ban on men of African descent holding the priesthood””more often change comes slowly and incrementally.