Describing new Mormon policy against baptizing children of gay parents is tough sell for most media

Veeka Duin's Baptism

It was a tough religion story to write. A major religious group decided it would not baptize the children of its gay adherents and their decision was slid unannounced past the church's rank and file.

It ended up on Facebook and cause such a ruckus late last week, that reporters had to scramble to put something together just before a weekend, with the hopes of adding to it later on.

Probably the best summation of the newest Latter-day Saints policy was best summed up by Peggy Fletcher Stack in the Salt Lake Tribune several days into the controversy that very much put the Mormon hierarchy on the defensive in a big way:

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Stories flooding social media tell of canceled baby blessings, postponed baptisms, aborted priesthood ordinations and withdrawn missionary applications.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.

An earlier story, using the church term "apostate" in the headline under the assumption that its audience was familiar with Mormon doctrines, summed it up this way:

Mormons who enter into same-sex unions will be considered apostates under new church policies, and their children will be barred from blessing and baptism rituals without the permission of the faith's highest leaders.
The policies are part of "Handbook 1," a guide for lay leaders of the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The changes were leaked to the public via social media Thursday.
Blogger and podcaster John Dehlin, who was excommunicated from the LDS Church earlier this year for apostasy, posted the documents on Facebook, triggering strong, sometimes angry responses -- including "outrageous," "repulsive" and "anti-family" -- from people in and out of the church. Dehlin, of Logan, called the policies "harmful" and stunning, given recent efforts by the LDS Church to build bridges with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
"It's just totally surprising," he said. "This is a level of retrenchment that I don't think anybody could have envisioned."
Church spokesman Eric Hawkins confirmed the documents were accurate, but he did not answer questions about the policies beyond stating that the church has a longstanding policy against gay marriage.
"While [the church] respects the law of the land and acknowledges the right of others to think and act differently, it does not perform or accept same-sex marriage within its membership," Hawkins said in a written statement.

Dehlin gets a lot of ink in this story as does another gay Mormon who’s mentioned at the end of the story. I am guessing the story was done on a tight deadline with little time to get more than a cardboard cut-out response from a church spokesman.

A follow-up Tribune story gave a more nuanced church response. The Trib also ran a compendium of reader responses plus reaction from the woman who may become the city’s first gay mayor. They also ran an RNS story by a lesbian activist on why she’s renouncing her LDS membership.

A New York Times story did -- surprise, surprise -- less in terms of getting an opposing point of view. There was the usual paragraph from the church spokesman and two passionate quotes by those opposed to the ruling. I understand it may be hard to find people who can defend the LDS stance while at the same time Pope Francis is baptizing babies of unmarried couples. But there are voices out there, in academia and elsewhere, that can explain why Mormon leaders did what they did and you’ll even find somein the comments section underneath the Times’ piece.

The church-owned Deseret News originally erred in the opposite direction, first posting a piece that gave no voice to the oppositionAnother article reported on a small protest in Temple Square against the new policy. The newspaper also posted a video from a church website where Todd Christofferson, a member of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, revealed more of the church’s thinking on the matter and did include quotes from Affirmation, a Mormon LGBT support group.

In response, KUTV, a Salt Lake City station, posted an interview with Christofferson’s gay brother about the new policy.

So the LDS church took quite a PR hit from this one. People magazine ran a photo on a gay male couple and their two kids over a story that included one paragraph from a church spokesman and several quotes condemning the move.

The Associated Press account started out with the gay father of two children who realized his kids would have to disavow him in order to keep their membership. The story, one of the clearer and more concise ones I read on the issue, gave the better quotes to gay friendly sources, but did include a cogent argument from the church and a pro-Mormon group as to why the policy could make sense.

It takes good writing to fairly and accurately present the positions of leaders on each side, even when one side has far more photogenic images (children with same-sex parents) at its disposal than does the other (a dry video of two older men chatting). I'd like to know what sort -- if any -- interior debate went on within church circles on this policy and what the local bishops are privately saying and thinking.

What wasn't brought up much, if at all, is how this policy was aimed at more lenient local church officials who knew which parents are gay and which ones aren't and who were fine with getting the kids baptized even if the parents were "apostate." Now the onus is going to be on them to police church policy at the ultimate local level -- the baptismal font.

It's my guess there are plenty of people at the local level who will disagree with this policy. Let's hope reporters cultivate the contacts they need to keep on following it.

Baptism photo by Lauren Pond

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