The Danzigs were both volunteer members of the Orchestra at Temple Square, a Church-operated orchestra that is the instrumental equivalent of the Tabernacle Choir. In June 2006 the Salt Lake Tribune published a letter from Peter Danzig opposing the Church’s effort to pass a federal Constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman only. Danzig’s letter also expressed support for Jeffrey Nielsen, a BYU adjunct professor whose contract had not been renewed after he had publicly opposed the Church’s support for the amendment. In his letter Danzig accused Church leaders of exercising “intellectual tyranny” in the Nielsen case, and called Church efforts an “injustice.”
Following the publication of his letter, Peter Danzig was suspended from his position in the Orchestra at Temple Square, apparently at the behest of Church leaders. Mary Danzig later resigned; the Tribune article says she “felt unwelcome in the orchestra.” Over the next year and a half the situation apparently rose to the level of local Church discipline. Rather than face that, the Danzigs resigned their membership in December 2007.
In the wake of this tragic event, I’d like to make a few comments about Church discipline and how stories like these are portrayed in the media.
1. Media reports are always one-sided. As the Tribune article notes, all the Church leaders involved declined to give any comments or written statements on the Danzigs’ case. The Church considers ecclesiastical discipline to be confidential, and does not comment on it. Because of this, reports in the media contain only one side of the issue — that of the disciplined member. Yesterday’s Tribune article tells the story from the Danzigs’ point of view. I am not accusing them of exaggerating or lying; I’m simply saying that there is another side to this story that we’re not hearing.
2. There is a difference between private disagreement with the Church and public criticism of the Church. Peter Danzig contends that there is “[no] room for personal conscience” in the Church, but he is simply mistaken. There are many Church members who disagree with the federal marriage amendment, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a convert and active Latter-day Saint. Senator Reid made public statements against the proposed amendment on the floor of the Senate, and voted against it. The difference between Harry Reid and Peter Danzig is that Danzig didn’t just argue the merits of the bill; he accused the Church of “intellectual tyranny,” requesting him to “violate [his] own conscience,” and supporting “injustice.” This clearly indicates that Danzig doesn’t just disagree with the Church, he believes Church leaders are acting in bad faith.
For what it’s worth, I think the marriage amendment is a very bad idea on Constitutional grounds. It takes power from the states and puts it in the hands of a centralized government, something the writers of the Constitution opposed. It takes away rights from people rather than guaranteeing rights (the only other amendment to do that was the Eighteenth, which prohibited production and sale of alcohol; it’s not insignificant that this is the only amendment that’s been repealed). It could open a Pandora’s box of unintended consequences by making individual marriage cases the jurisdiction of federal courts. And it uses federal power to combat the supposed immorality of an unpopular minority group — exactly the same thing that was done to Mormons themselves in the late nineteenth century.
But make no mistake: My personal opposition to the federal marriage amendment does not include condemnation of Church leaders for supporting it. I support and sustain the leaders of the Church, and believe the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve acted in good faith in this matter. From my personal interactions with the Brethren, I know of their love for all men and women, and their honest desire to strengthen marriage and help those who struggle with homosexual feelings.
3. A single incidence of criticism almost never leads to Church discipline. The Church Handbook of Instructions defines apostasy as repeated, clear, open, and deliberate public opposition to the Church or its leaders. A single incident simply doesn’t bring down excommunication on an ordinary Church member — only acts continued after leaders have counseled with the member and asked him or her to refrain. The Salt Lake Tribune doesn’t go into what happened between the Danzigs and their local leaders during the year and a half after Peter’s letter was published, so we don’t know what interactions they had. But from my experience serving with three bishoprics, I know for a fact that a single letter to the editor doesn’t result in Church discipline.
4. There is a difference between being a member of the Church, and being an employee of the Church. Jeffrey Nielsen’s BYU contract was not renewed after he came out in opposition to the Church’s stance on the marriage amendment.* But as a Church employee, his actions are under greater scrutiny than the average Church member’s, and justifiably so.
I’m employed by a fairly large financial institution. I have at times disagreed with certain policies and practices of the organization, and have expressed disagreement at various meetings with its leaders. If I were to make one of my disagreements public in a letter to the local newspaper, my employers would be perfectly within their rights to fire me. But if a customer of our institution were to write a letter to a newspaper complaining or our products or policies, we would certainly not close their account.
There is a similar difference between Church employment and Church membership. Nielsen was an employee of the Church, and Danzig was a volunteer with a prominent organization within the Church. Both of them were under greater requirements to refrain from public criticism of the Church than they would have been as regular members.
The Danzigs’ experience is a tragic one — tragic for them as individuals and as a family, and tragic for the loss of their great talent that benefited the Church. But the Salt Lake Tribune article doesn’t tell us the whole story, and it’s doubtful that we’ll ever hear it.
# # #
* Note that the Tribune article says Nielsen “lost his job,” which is not technically accurate. He was adjunct faculty, whose contracts are renewed on term-by-term basis. His contract was not renewed, which is not the same thing as being fired or dismissed.
Update: In a comment on this post, Mike L. pointed out that the Church has issued a press release responding to the Tribune article. In it they give some details the Tribune article failed to mention or in which it was mistaken: