Mormons, baptism and children of gay parents: The drama intensifies

It’s a gift that keeps on giving. In terms of news value, the decision by leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to deny baptism to under-age children of gay parents is impossible to leave alone. I wrote about the initial coverage a week ago but a lot has happened since then. The New York Times, for instance, has run five articles so far, with this one being the latest. Keep your eye on them.

If you've been hiding under a rock recently, here's how the Salt Lake Tribune describes the current situation:

No part of the new LDS policy on same-sex couples has generated more controversy -- and criticism -- than its prohibition against Mormon rituals for their children.
Stories flooding social media tell of canceled baby blessings, postponed baptisms, aborted priesthood ordinations and withdrawn missionary applications. Even many devout Mormons -- including congregational and regional leaders — report distress, despondence and despair over the upheaval.

Opponents of the church’s decision -- and there are many -- have helped things along by having a photogenic mass resignation of their church membership last Saturday. Being that a similar rally has already been scheduled for next Saturday, methinks the organizers are going to continue this media campaign for as long as they can. Most people in the news business can sniff out a manufactured event, so I'll be interested to see who covers Rally #2.

What’s also helped the protesters' cause is there’s been no official comment from LDS leaders except for a 10-minute video placed on the church’s web site on Nov. 6 and a statement a few days later clarifying the new policy.

Not a smart move by the church, because their opponents are winning the media battle hands down. And the church's silence leaves reporters with little else but the hard case or gays-impacted-by-this policy stories, such as this one by NPR:

Janice Unsicker slurps hot chocolate out of a spoon at an IHOP in North Salt Lake City, utterly unaware of the controversy that surrounds her. When asked what she's been learning at her Mormon church, the 6-year-old smiles, simply saying, "About Heavenly Father and Jesus."
Her father, however, has to figure out how to explain that things have changed.
"Her grandparents have been preparing her to get baptized, and she's been excited about it," Todd Unsicker-Montoya says. "I still haven't even told her that now she can't. I don't know how."
Under a new policy from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, children of same-sex couples are barred from being baptized. That includes Janice and her 3-year-old brother, Trevor, because they live with two dads who are married to each other. After they turn 18 years old, Janice and Trevor will have the chance to be baptized — but only if they disavow the practice of same-sex relationships and marriage.

Not to dump on NPR, but it's not hard to find quotes along the line of bitter gay Mormons (now ex-Mormons) and their friends. Other media milked their sources better and came up with new angles. For instance, the New York Times came up with interesting tidbits of info, such as in this recent story:

It appears that the new rules were not supposed to be made public. They were issued as changes to a confidential handbook, and sent by email last week to leaders of the church’s 30,000 congregations around the world. They were leaked to the news media and confirmed by a church spokesman.

Then there was a piece in the International Business Times that talked about the legal difficulties of leaving. This is fascinating to those of us who have no idea of what’s involved in getting one's name removed from Mormon church registries. IBT's piece included an interview with an attorney who’s helping disenchanted members process their resignations.

Mark Naugle, an immigration attorney in Salt Lake City whose entire family left the church when he was 15, says that both the social pressures in a place like Utah, where the vast majority of the population is Mormon, and the official steps required to be stricken from membership lists can make it difficult for Mormons who no longer want to be identified as such.
“It’s extremely difficult because your entire community is ingrained within the church. Your local leaders may show up at your house, try to schedule meetings with you to come back, your family and friends could learn embarrassing details about your life,” Naugle says. “There’s no easy way out.”
However, Naugle said if members get an attorney like him involved in the process, the church is much less likely to put up a fight. Members can give Naugle power of attorney to represent them in their communications with the church. Naugle then sends a letter on their behalf to church headquarters requesting removal, and the matter is typically resolved between five and 15 days -- versus the months or sometimes years it can take otherwise, he says.  
Before the new policy regarding children of same-sex couples became public, Naugle had performed the service, pro bono, for about 300 people. Once it was widely known, Naugle made a post to Reddit offering his services for anyone interested. In the last week, he has received 2,000 emails requesting his help.

As far as I know, no other outlet talked with Naugle in depth about this.

Television professionals have gotten into the act, with outlets such as KUTV giving a crowd estimate of "almost 2,000" people at Saturday's rally. Other media said "hundreds" or "more than 1,000" showed up. Take your pick. The beautiful weather that day didn't hurt turnout, either.

The Deseret News was probably alone among the media present at the rally to not start their story with quotes from a gay couple.

Instead, its reporter pointed out, with data drawn from the movement’s Facebook page, that most of those demonstrating in downtown Salt Lake were had been inactive for some time. It also included more quotes from church leaders including church data showing its numbers have grown in recent years. Their take on the story probably mirrors what Mormon officialdom is saying behind closed doors. Since they're owned by the LDS church, I wish they could give us a glimpse into who was behind this policy change and why it was handled -- or mishandled -- the way it has been.

Instead, it's been the Salt Lake Tribune that dug up hints that this new policy may not be set in stone and that insiders are already thinking up ways to get around it. The same piece also included interviews with Mormons who backed the church’s policy. They also reported that the city's incoming lesbian mayor wants to talk with church leaders about the policy.

I know it's tough for media outside of Utah to get local Mormon leaders to talk about the policy, as all interviews have to go through church HQ in Salt Lake. That makes the LDS'ers tough to cover, especially during a crisis when the PR guys are overwhelmed. Which is why I applaud media that have found fresh angles to this drama more than casting one side as the villains and the other as victims.

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