A Mormon man who gained notoriety over the past decade for running a website that offers doubting Latter-day Saints a forum to chat has been kicked out of the religion.
John Dehlin announced the decision from regional church leaders Tuesday. He becomes the second high-profile church member to be excommunicated in the past year in what Mormon scholars consider to be the Utah-based faith's way of keeping dissenters in line.
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A regional church leader in North Logan told Dehlin in a letter that Mormon officials made a unanimous decision to excommunicate him for apostasy, defined by the church as repeatedly acting in clear public opposition to the faith.
While not a lifelong ban, excommunication is a rare move that amounts to the harshest punishment available for a church member.
The letter from Bryan King says Dehlin is being kicked out not because he doubted and asked questions about church doctrine, but because he made categorical statements opposing the faith that were disseminated on his website. King wrote that Dehlin's actions have led others to leave the faith.
"You do not have the right to remain a member of the church in good standing while openly and publicly trying to convince others that church teachings are in error," King wrote.
The decision comes two days after Dehlin met with church leaders in a four-hour disciplinary hearing.
Dehlin, 45, hoped he wouldn't be excommunicated but told church leaders he could not in good conscience stop operating his website, Mormonstories.org.
Dehlin said he was told last year that his website and his public support of same-sex marriage were reasons he was being accused of apostasy.
But Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints spokesman Eric Hawkins said in a statement that while Dehlin's views on gay marriage go against church teachings, they were not the reasons for his discipline.
The letter cites three key issues, including Dehlin's belief that the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham are fraudulent and his rejection of the religion being the "true church with power and authority from God."
Hawkins said excommunication is not the end, but rather the "beginning of the road back to full fellowship."
People who are kicked out or leave the church are welcome to return "through the grace and Atonement of Jesus Christ," Hawkins said.
The move is likely to send ripples through the Mormon community. It comes on the heels of the June ouster of Kate Kelly, founder of a group pushing for women to be allowed in the religion's lay clergy.
Scholars say Kelly and Dehlin are the most high-profile examples of excommunication proceedings since 1993. That year, the church disciplined six Mormon writers who questioned church doctrine, ousting five and kicking out a sixth temporarily.
"The church is sending a message with this: 'Don't express your doubts or concerns publicly, or you risk excommunication,'" said Mike Huband, a Dehlin supporter and active Mormon. "They are saying to those people on the fringes, 'We don't want you in the church.' It's very disappointing."
To supporters like Huband, Dehlin is a hero who risked his standing in the faith to create a much-needed forum where church members could openly discuss sensitive or controversial issues about the faith. About 200 supporters held a weekend vigil for Dehlin outside the church building where his disciplinary hearing took place.
Huband said Dehlin helped him navigate a recent faith crisis and figure out a way to focus on the positives of Mormonism and stay in the religion. Huband said he thinks Dehlin drew church leaders' wrath because he brought to light many unflattering issues about the church's past, including the early days of polygamy under Joseph Smith when the founder had a teen bride and married other men's wives.
To his detractors, Dehlin is a Latter-day Saint who long ago stopped believing in the faith's core tenets and has painted himself as a martyr.
"Dehlin's choices forced his local leaders to take steps to protect their adherents from one who not only ceased to believe, but who actively sought to have others embrace his disbelief," said Scott Gordon, co-founder of MormonVoices, an organization that supports the LDS church.
Dehlin is a married father of four who has been a Latter-day Saint his entire life. He is a doctoral candidate in psychology who previously worked in the high-tech industry.
Dehlin has faced church discipline multiple times over the past decade, but it never reached this point. He says he only tried to help fellow church members dealing with doubts, and he doesn't regret his actions.