Who Leaked the Policy?

Aaron Brown is an early founder of BCC.

One year later, I have a story to tell:

— November 5, 2015. I’m at a conference in San Francisco, scrolling through my Facebook feed on my iPhone. I happen upon a discussion in a private group created for LDS leaders interested in ministering to the needs of LGBT church members. A participant — a current LDS bishop and friend of mine — is talking about the contents of an email he’d received from LDS church headquarters either that morning or the night before. He’s saying something about a new policy in the Church Handbook of Instructions (CHI) that declares same-sex married church members to be “apostates”.

— This is disheartening but not surprising to me. I’m a High Councilor in my Seattle stake, where I’ve been specifically tasked with spearheading “LGBT outreach” by my stake president since late 2013. I’ve previously wondered if the Church wouldn’t adopt a policy around disciplining married homosexual church members since the SCOTUS decision in Obergefell earlier that summer. In fact, in a hyper-orthodox LDS Facebook group I frequented, I’d recently argued that senior Church leaders would NEED to adopt such a policy if they wanted local leaders to handle such cases in a relatively standardized way. But because some group members had strenuously disagreed with me on this point — believing the CHI was sufficient-as-written to mandate church discipline in these cases — I decide to head over to the group and mention the new policy.

— An ex-Mormon I didn’t know at the time who also frequents this group — one Ryan McKnight of Las Vegas — sees my post and immediately reposts it to the ex-Mormon Reddit and the Mormon Stories Facebook group where it starts to go viral. Among many others, excommunicated Mormon and well-known podcaster John Dehlin sees the post and starts to make inquiries.

— Meanwhile, I return to the LGBT-themed private group for LDS leaders and resume conversation with my LDS bishop friend. He hints that the new same-sex marriage/apostasy policy is not the whole story, that there are more CHI changes, potentially even more controversial ones. He starts referencing the children of same-sex couples, restrictions on ordinances, disavowing family members, etc. I finally ask the bishop to just forward the email from church HQ to me. I want to see it for myself. Realizing that the nature of my church calling makes the new policies very relevant, he obliges.

— I open the email and quickly read the entirety of the new CHI provisions, contained in an attached PDF-document. I am stunned. I instantly recognize that I’m holding a nuclear bomb. I never would’ve anticipated the baby blessing and baptism policies. I cannot imagine how the Church formally adopted them without laying any groundwork in the press, without somehow involving LDS Public Affairs in their dissemination. It’s as if they don’t anticipate any explosion at all.

— I am aware that discussion of the new policy’s “apostasy” provisions is already happening publicly (I don’t believe Ryan’s posts were its only source, but I am unsure), but I haven’t seen ANYTHING about the much more controversial provisions regarding children. I recognize that I have the option of posting the policy on my wall via a quick “copy” and “paste” from the PDF the Church circulated.

— I am not interested in embarrassing the Church. I take the Church’s imminent embarrassment to be a foregone conclusion. Someone is obviously going to publicly reveal the policy language, and soon. Will it happen tomorrow? Later this afternoon? Ten minutes from now? The only question I’m asking myself is, “Aaron, what do you want your relationship with this fact to be?” I can sit back and wait for the public scandal to erupt, watch the policy go viral. I certainly cannot stop it from happening (even assuming I’d wanted to). Alternatively, I can ride the first wave of the inevitable explosion by posting it first, by hosting a public discussion of it on my Facebook wall. I have long used my wall to publicly promote outreach events in my stake, and to initiate discussions of LGBT Mormon issues as part of that outreach. Discussing the new policies will be consistent with the role I play regularly.

— I post the baby blessing and baptism provisions of the new CHI policy to my Facebook wall at 4:35 pm PST. (This happens 30 seconds after I see someone else post the same provisions in the private group for LDS leaders). I offer no personal reaction to the policy, but I do point out that it is “effective immediately”, per the Church’s own declaration in its PDF-document. Unsurprisingly, my wall explodes.

— Exactly 21 minutes later, John Dehlin has seen the post on my wall, and he posts the policy language to his own wall, tagging me as his source. This leads to an even bigger explosion, as you might imagine. And things only snowball from there.

So there you go.

In the days following November 5, the Utah press briefly took an interest in the identity of the “leaker”. A Utah television station wanted to interview the guilty party. John Dehlin approached me about doing the interview, but after brief consideration, I declined. I was still a stake High Councilor, and felt it would be inappropriate to publicly embarrass my stake president. I also asked Dehlin to keep me anonymous for the time being. He agreed. A short time later, Dehlin and McKnight were interviewed by television stations in Utah and Nevada, respectively. Neither mentioned my involvement.

It was both bewildering and amusing to watch the subsequent discussion unfold online. So many rumors were flying about the initial “source” of the leak. (As if we were reliving Watergate, and “Deep Throat” must be exposed!). My favorite was the instructor at a Utah seminary teacher training who is said to have told his assembled teachers that a disgruntled employee at the Church’s law firm, Kirton & McConkie, had disseminated the document without permission. LOL. There were other rumors too.

What’s funny is that anyone who bothered to exert a little bit of effort could have identified me easily. Dehlin’s role was well-known, and anyone examining his Facebook history from Nov. 5 could have seen that he tagged me as his source for the baby blessing and baptism policy language. The guys at “Infants on Thrones” outed me almost immediately on a podcast. Ryan McKnight, when pressed to reveal HIS source, acknowledged it was me in conversations online (and presumably would’ve told anyone else who asked). Various ultra-conservative church members on social media knew of my role and regularly and publicly chastised me for it. John Dehlin did not reveal my identity in any of his podcasts for several months, per my request (he would eventually do so, with my blessing, after I left the High Council). Instead, he said he had “three sources” when asked, without giving names (I was one of these sources directly, and at least one of the other two indirectly, via Ryan).

Despite all this, let me be very, very clear: The identity of “the leaker” should’ve been obvious to everyone from Day One. The “leaker” was …. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In the internet age, when you send an email to thousands of recipients, YOU’VE LEAKED YOUR OWN DOCUMENT. It is therefore absurd to fret about the singular source of a public dissemination, as if there couldn’t be 99 separate sources. But if you want to get technical about it, you can say that I was the first person to put the baby blessing and baptism portions of the November 5 policy in a publicly-accessible space online. That would be accurate, as far as I know.

I want to reiterate that my motives were not malicious. I wasn’t interested in damaging the Church. I have critics who are determined to believe otherwise, who insist I should be experiencing — or even AM experiencing — extreme guilt. Whatever. I’m not losing any sleep over these reactions.

Other voices have argued that the “timing” of the leak was very unfortunate, that it’s largely what drove the public backlash. That if the Church had only been able to roll out the policy at a time and in a manner of its own choosing, much of the resulting public angst and turmoil could’ve been avoided. This is preposterous. There’s no way a leak could have been avoided once the policy had been disseminated, but even if it had, the contents of the policy would’ve proved explosive even under the best of circumstances. Denying saving ordinances to minor children for 10 crucial years, prohibiting their receipt of the Gift of the Holy Ghost during their entire adolescence, was destined to create a firestorm no matter when and how it was announced. And the Church’s own email informed local leaders that the policy was for “immediate implementation”. So a small number of families were guaranteed to learn of the policy immediately when their church leaders suddenly cancelled their baptisms or baby blessings that weekend. (This is, in fact, exactly what happened in a few reported cases). Had no leak occurred in the first 48 hours, does anyone really believe none of these families would’ve caused a public stir, instigating the very same public backlash we saw on Nov. 5? The very notion boggles the mind.

Anyway, there’s a lot more I could say about the policy and my feelings about it, but this will do for now. Thanks for reading.

Comments

  1. Doney Done Done says:

    I remember so clearly when I first read of it on FB seeing the speculation that it was a vicious rumor started by an angry ex Mormon. That the church would never do such a thing. How very quickly those people came to defend the leaders saying “they must be doing it out of love.” The icky feelings just came flooding back.

  2. That penultimate paragraph — so true. It really does boggle the mind to think that families whose baby blessings and baptisms were cancelled that weekend (which did happen) would not have commented on such a devastating occurrence publicly.

  3. Morgan B. Bronson says:

    It’s amazing that this was only a year ago. What I’ve seen is that some members of the church have brushed it off as “something that doesn’t affect me” when in reality, it affects everyone and has hurt so many. I’ve known two wonderful people personally who have since taken their own lives due to feeling like their Savior has completely rejected them. terriblestuff. Thank you for sharing (again)

  4. I can’t believe it’s been a year. Thanks for this post, Aaron.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Although I sort of remember these details from when it happened, they had become fuzzy in my memory, so I very much appreciate this coherent retelling.

  6. I remember this playing out live on Facebook. A gay Mormon friend posted about the gay marriage apostasy provision and I was heartbroken for her and for the harsh end to the hope I had been feeling about the direction of openness and tolerance I had felt the church was moving towards. But I wasn’t terribly shocked. Then, just a few minutes later I saw your post about the denial of ordinances to children of gay parents and I was crushed. Just days and days of sobbing. I still can’t fathom it. Selfishly, the one good thing that came out of it for me is that the intensity of the pain I felt made me finally admit to myself that I had been feeling depressed and numb for months. To feel something, anything, even grief and pain was shocking enough to make me get some professional help. So, in that way, and that way only, I’m grateful for the policy. In all other ways it has profoundly shaken my relationship with the church and made me ashamed to be Mormon.

  7. The church needs to continue to roll out policies like this to protect their bigoted and hateful stance to show the world they hold onto their integrity and stand true for what they believe in. If they don’t, in the year 2078 they will risk losing millions of members when the future prophet and apostles meet in the temple and pray to Heavenly Father to understand His will regarding undoing His bigoted and hurtful policies of today. The very same policies that these future leaders of the church will not understand why they were written and therefore will disavow.

  8. I’m glad someone of intelligence and integrity was the leaker.

  9. Paul Roberts says:

    Leak? That wasn’t a leak. As soon as it was announced to 30,000 bishops and branch presidents…. Leak? The last time there was a leak like that Noah built himself a boat.

  10. I agree that calling it a ‘leak’ is really kind of dumb, since the Church released the policy to a bunch of local leaders. How could they not expect people to find out about it? And, like your last paragraph points out, it directly affected people immediately. That was the hardest thing about the policy for me–my first thought was “they forgot about us”. My ex-husband is in a same-sex marriage and I’ve been dealing with the intersection of the Church and homosexuality for about 15 years. I really thought we were making progress in understanding and accepting the wide variety of human experiences that make up our church membership. And them, bam, this thing. The wording was so oblivious to the fact that children can have complicated lives and that some people who are gay still want their children to participate in church. It seemed to be coming from the viewpoint that ‘the gays’ are some entirely separate group from church members, that there won’t ever be overlap between the two groups, and that the Church is directly under attack from ‘the gays’ and needs to make a preemptive strike of some kind. After finally getting the Church to acknowledge that homosexuality is not a choice, the idea that children need to ‘disavow’ same-sex marriage is so weird–they aren’t going to participate in a same-sex marriage unless they are gay. It’s not a lifestyle choice or something. Ugh–I’m still frustrated about this after a year and still waiting for some clarification or softening.

  11. Fran Baker says:

    Aaron, all you did was leak this incredibly damaging yet true fact that gave me the further light and knowledge I needed to knock myself off that fence and walk out of the church. You’re it, man. You’re my hero. I can’t thank you enough for what you did for me and mine. Blessings to you.

  12. I am not even Mormon, but I salute you! That was a brave and kind thing that you did, acting according to your conscience.

  13. Prop 8 opened the door for me to research church history as I tried to make some sense of current policies and doctrines. I had already stopped attending, but NOV5 confirmed for me the futility of trying to make the church work. Love is Love.

  14. Matthew 7:16 “Ye shall know them by their fruit.” The policy is such bitter fruit. What went wrong?

  15. One thing that really troubles me in this, is the fact that the church released this, but didn’t seem to have a plan to let the general membership know anything about it. The devastation it would have on individual families would still remain with absolutely no explanation given to them, and no way for them to even look up this information unless they happened to be in the bishopric. They would just suddenly be told that everything was different because a book they aren’t supposed to see says so. Without general knowledge of this policy, the members in those areas would probably just think they had a unique situation, or that the bishop or SP had decided on their own what to do. In fact we KNOW that’s what most members would have thought since almost none of them believed a policy like this could have come from the top until it was confirmed.
    So in effect, it would have done 2 long-term things:
    1. Established a precident that regular members can suddenly have their salvation terminated or families split apart without any warning or input because they would have no access to the reasons for termination before it happened.
    2. Made Mormons blame their local leadership for the fallout, not the higher-ups since most probably wouldn’t work really hard to get a hold of a bishop’s handbook. Again adding to the “well the people in the church aren’t perfect…but really we mean the LOCAL people, not the higher-up ones.”

    Both of those things disturb me deeply and are not compatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ as I understand it. The “leak” may have saved the church from its own bad practices in the long-run.

  16. The surprising thing about this post isn’t the “revelation” that Aaron Brown was the first person to put this out there publicly (which has been widely known for a long time) but that Aaron has denied it over and over again over the last year only to own up to it now. Why so many denials if it’s really no big deal?

  17. The amount of vitriol I saw directed toward the “leaker” confirmed to me that many of the most stalwart of members were dealing with excessive amounts of negative feelings resulting from the policy and had to find someone to blame. The leaker was an easy target.

  18. By releasing the information in a manner of their choosing, the church could have avoided the problem it faced when MANY church members REFUSED to believe that the leak was true. My own family and friends were convinced it was a malicious rumor and a lie, that would be debunked as soon as the church was able to address it. Instead, church members had to eat crow and do some serious mental gymnastics to justify their position when it became obvious that the leak was for real. This embarrassed a lot of people.

  19. Aussie Mormon says:

    PieFace: There are plenty of things in Handbook 1 that the general membership doesn’t know or care about until it affects them. Do you think the church should just go and make Handbook 1 available to all on their website like they do with Handbook 2?

  20. Aaron Brown says:

    Mike:
    “The surprising thing about this post isn’t the “revelation” that Aaron Brown was the first person to put this out there publicly (which has been widely known for a long time) but that Aaron has denied it over and over again over the last year only to own up to it now. Why so many denials if it’s really no big deal?”

    Mike, you’re full of shit. I have NEVER, EVER denied my role in the events of Nov. 5 to ANYONE over the course of the past year. Not even once. Kindly refrain from making stuff up and trying to hoodwink people with your fantasies.

    Aaron B

  21. davidsonlaw says:

    Aaron,

    I have been involved in several Facebook exchanges with you in which you were accused of being the leaker and you obfuscated and denied that it was you. This was before the Throne kiddos outed you directly. I would post screencaps if the commenting tool here would allow it.

  22. Gentlemen, no offense but I am simply uninterested in a minor distraction like this in the context of the larger issues implicated by the policy. Aaron’s honor deserves defending, but not right here and now.

  23. (I mean it)

  24. Aussie Mormon says:

    So we can’t slap him with a white glove and challenge him to pistols at 10 paces?

  25. Mephibosheth says:

    Perhaps one reason why the brethren didn’t expect such an explosive reaction is that they were already disseminating the policy in stake leadership conferences as early as June 2015. One reddit user [commented on it here\(https://np.reddit.com/r/latterdaysaints/comments/39z3am/mormon_women_to_have_more_say_in_plans_for_weekly/cs92jfz/?context=3) (mouseover the “Last edited 1 year ago” text to see the exact date).

  26. My husband and I were serving a mission in the midwest when we read this on KSL. Usually whenever the church made a new policy, it was immediately spewed out in great depth by the UP or local other religions. For some reason it never made it into the papers where we were. I was surprised. All the hype was in Utah and surrounding states where the majority of the members lived. And if you notice, most of the hype is now gone there also.

  27. Aaron Brown says:

    Mephibosheth, I don’t see how the comment at that Reddit link supports your assertion. It doesn’t appear to be about this topic at all. Yes, it mentions part of the policy at the end, but it doesn’t read like a claim that the policy was part of the earlier meeting.

    Aaron B

  28. Aussie Mormon says:

    I think Mephibosheth’s point is, that at least some people (such as that redditor, and the people that read his/her post) knew about at least part of the policy five months before the official handbook addendum email from the early days of November 2015, and that as nothing happened during that period, they may have thought it unlikely that anything would happen when the addendum was sent.

    On the topic at the end of your original post (what would happen if it wasn’t leaked):
    It’s impossible to answer a hypothetical like that even with hindsight. When Madison Brown was denied baptism (https://bycommonconsent.com/2015/10/11/polygamy-and-baptism-policy/) due to her polygamy ties, the equivalent polygamy policy (denouncing the behaviour and marriage of her parents) came to the knowledge of a wider group of people, and although there was outcry initially, all coverage died off pretty quickly, and without knowing her name, it’s quite hard to find any articles on it now.
    I tend feel that if it had been Mr(s) and Mr(s) Jones of Orem that went to the media, it would have had a lot less coverage than a Dehlin type going big with it. But like I said, it’s a hypothetical that we’ll never know the answer to.

  29. Mephibosheth says:

    What Aussie Mormon said. The timestamp on the reddit comment which mentions the November policy is June 17, 2015. So people were aware of it in small pockets here and there long before November.

  30. Aaron Brown says:

    Aussie Mormon, if Mr. and Mrs. Jones had gone to the media, its highly likely that a Dehlin-type would’ve picked up the story and broadcast it. So I don’t think the difference between the two scenarios you describe is meaningful. Both would’ve ended the same way regardless.

    The policy content itself is newsworthy, and thus bound to make a splash. There’s no way around that.

    Aaron B

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