The exclusive, secretive nature of the temple causes little conflict for LDS couples preparing to be married in many parts of the world, where the private religious temple ceremony doesn’t meet the requirements for a legally binding marriage. In the U.K., where Matt Dann grew up, prior to marrying before God, LDS couples must marry in front of the state, in a ceremony anyone may attend. British couples typically have a ceremony that satisfies the state in the morning and a sealing later in the day. In fact, Dann adds, “The church in the U.K. goes to great lengths to accommodate couples by making the temple available to newlyweds sometimes as late as 10 p.m.”
However, in the U.S., Canada, and South Africa, where the closed ceremony of the temple is legally valid, Mormons must choose between the two.
For people raised in Mormon communities where the policy is now deeply ingrained, this hasn’t always caused much distress. Like Anderson, I was a bridesmaid at three receptions following weddings I couldn’t attend; I accepted it as the way things are. But Wendy Reynolds of Kenmore, Wash., said that she saw the matter in a new light when she went from being excluded to doing the excluding. “I was a bridesmaid four times without being able to attend the ceremony,” Reynolds told me. “It wasn't a big deal because I knew all along that I wouldn't be able to go. I didn't think it was strange until I was getting married myself and had to leave several of my closest friends and the majority of my family off the ceremony list. I was married 20 years ago, and I have never recovered from this.”
Micah Nickolaisen, a professional photographer in the Phoenix area, has observed how painful these matters often are for young Mormon couples. Host of the LDS podcast Exploring Sainthood, he states in a recent episode, “If that pain is justified, if that’s what God wants, if there’s some doctrinal or theological reason that it has to be that way, then maybe that’s the price we have to pay, but it seems so pointless. What are we accomplishing except creating distance from us and the people we’re trying to influence and put on a good impression for?”
Consequently, some faithful Mormons are asking leaders to reconsider the policy of forcing couples wherever possible to wait a year for the sealing if they also have a civil ceremony. A new website, Family First Weddings, collects statements about the policy and encourages members to write respectful letters to the church hierarchy explaining how the policy hurts them and their relationships. The stories posted are so persuasive that it’s hard to find anyone who approves of the current policy. In fact, I had to enlist the help of people who participate regularly in forums for conservative Mormons to find anyone willing to go on record defending the current policy—and even the one person who agreed decided after perusing the website that the policy is unfair and should be changed.
But there’s no clear mechanism by which members can ask leaders to change policies—even one so inconsistent. In 1978 the church changed its policy on race and the priesthood: Until then, men of African descent couldn’t hold the priesthood. Prior to the change, there were protests over the matter, but according to the church, the change occurred because Spencer W. Kimball, then president of the church, received a revelation from God that it was his will that the policy change. Many people felt the elimination of obvious racial discrimination was the answer to a great many prayers.
But not all prayers that the church adapt to the ethics and equality of the modern world result in a revelation that it’s time for change. People who clamored too loudly for change in the church’s treatment of women have sometimes been summarily excommunicated—Sonia Johnson, for instance, who protested the church’s opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, or a group of feminists in the 1990s.
It’s hard to predict whether Family First Weddings will succeed. When I contacted LDS public affairs director Michael Otterson for a comment on the policy and efforts to persuade the brethren to change it, he would only say, “Church leaders are aware of, and sensitive to, this issue.”
The modesty of the goal of Family First Weddings baffles some outsiders: Why not make temple weddings open to everyone? I was essentially asked as I wrote this story. But that would be analogous to, say, Catholics asking their church to let a non-Catholic administer the Eucharist, or to let anyone who wants to visit every area of a cloistered monastery: It invalidates doctrine and violates not only concepts of holiness but something fundamental about the commitments and blessings inherent in joining a church.
All that Family First Weddings and its supporters are asking for is something Mormons in many parts of the world and most people in North America accept as a basic right: the option of having a civil wedding and inviting whomever they please without being religiously shamed and punished for it.