Church Court Action Clarified
March 1980

“Church Court Action Clarified,” Ensign, Mar. 1980, 79–80

Church Court Action Clarified

The Church court actions involved in the nationally publicized excommunication of Sonia Johnson, former member of the Sterling Park, Virginia, Ward, were explained further in January.

Jerry P. Cahill, director of press relations for Church Public Communications, gave the following information to news media on January 2:

“The excommunication of Mrs. Sonia Johnson from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been widely reported in the news media,” Brother Cahill said. “The real reasons for the excommunication, however, have often been overlooked or ignored by the media, although we provided a detailed explanation after announcing the decision to Mrs. Johnson.

“That Mrs. Johnson had taken public issue with the Church’s opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment was not among the grounds for the ecclesiastical action leading to her excommunication.

“But, in her advocacy of ERA, Mrs. Johnson expressed attitudes and views which went beyond that issue and constituted a direct and irresponsible attack upon the Church, its leaders, doctrines, and programs. In public statements she urged the obstruction of the Church’s worldwide missionary effort, demonstrated that she was not in harmony with Church doctrine, and misrepresented and held up to ridicule the leadership and membership of the Church.

“The history of the Church clearly demonstrates the long-standing concern of its leaders that women, as daughters of God, should have without discrimination every political, economic, and educational opportunity. We are also convinced after careful study, after consultation with the various Constitutional authorities, and after much prayerful consideration, that if the proposed amendment were to be ratified, there would follow over the years a train of interpretations and implementations that would demean women rather than ennoble them, and that also would threaten the stability of the family, a creation of God, and the moral climate of the future.”

Previously, on 5 December 1979, Public Communications had made available to news media a letter from Jeffrey H. Willis, bishop of the Sterling Park Ward, to Mrs. Johnson:

“For the benefit of all concerned in Church courts, the proceedings are usually private and confidential,” Bishop Willis wrote. “However, since you have raised the issue to the [news] media, it has become necessary that I make a public statement on the reasons for this action.”

Bishop Willis said that discussions had been held with Mrs. Johnson over the past eighteen months. “As you know, I have at no time tried to dissuade you from seeking the ratification of the [Equal Rights] amendment. I have counseled with you relative to your support of Church leaders and doctrine.”

He pointed out further that there are other members of the Church who support ERA, “and to the best of my knowledge no Church action has been taken, nor is their membership in question.”

Bishop Willis stated that the three basic issues in the hearing, mutually agreed upon between himself and Mrs. Johnson, were as follows:

  1. Have your [Mrs. Johnson’s] actions influenced members and nonmembers to oppose Church programs—i.e. the missionary program?

  2. Have your actions and statements advocated diminished support of Church leaders?

  3. Have you presented false doctrine which would damage others spiritually?

Citing the two hearing sessions which lasted more than seven hours, Bishop Willis said, “Your witnesses were heard and your evidence presented to your acknowledged satisfaction.”

The particulars in the hearing included the following:

“You testified that you believe and have publicly stated that our [Mormon] society, specifically including Church leaders, has [in Mrs. Johnson’s words] ‘a savage misogyny’; when in fact it is Church doctrine that exaltation can be gained only through the love that results in the eternal bonding of man and woman.

“You also testified that you believe and have taught that [Mormon] missionaries should not be invited into people’s homes.

“You have publicly taught that the Church is dedicated to imposing the prophet’s moral directives upon all Americans when it is the doctrine of the Church that all people are free to choose for themselves those moral directives dictated by their own consciences.

“Your testimony and public speeches evidence in spirit that you are not in harmony with Church doctrine concerning the nature of God and the manner in which he directs his church on earth.”

Mrs. Johnson’s excommunication does not preclude future affiliation with the Church. She is currently appealing the decision through the established Church process. The Church statement concludes, “Members of the Church in the ward and stake in which Mrs. Johnson resides are encouraged to let her know of their love for her and to assist her in appropriate ways should she indicate a desire one day to have her membership restored.”