Statement from Mormons for the ERA regarding Sonia Johnson’s excommunication trial [Click image to enlarge.]
(Utah State University, Merrill-Cazier Library, Special Collections & Archives, Collection MSS 225, Box 19, Folder 16.)

In 1979, the LDS Church excommunicated MERA President Sonia Johnson. Major news outlets extensively covered the public and controversial affair. In a March 1980 Ensign article, the LDS Church explained the excommunication from their perspective. The Church stated, “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.” The Church goes on to explain that Johnson faced excommunication because she “expressed attitudes and views which went beyond that issue and constituted a direct and irresponsible attack upon the Church, its leaders, doctrines, and programs.” They cite specific examples of how Johnson encouraged “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.”[1] Sonia Johnson pushed back against these statements and argued that her excommunication was the result of her gender and challenge to the Church’s patriarchy.

Letter from Bishop Willis to Sonia Johnson about the LDS Church’s court’s decision to excommunicate her [Click image to enlarge; click it again to browse all pages.]
(Utah State University, Merrill-Cazier Library, Special Collections & Archives, Collection MSS 225, Box 19, Folder 16.)

Other women contend that they were also excommunicated because of the ERA. However, they all note that “it is not the reason our bishops gave. They pin it on something vague like preaching false doctrine.”[2] Sonia Johnson describes her excommunication in her book, From Housewife to Heretic, by recounting how she was notified of her trial and possible excommunication, the court-like experience, and her feelings of being tried and judged by a panel comprised entirely of men.[3] Excommunication is the most extreme consequence for dissenters within the LDS Church. There are no publicly available numbers on how many ERA supporters the Church excommunicated or how many supporters asked to have their names removed from the church membership lists. It is difficult, from a scholarly perspective, to fairly analyze the conflicting accounts from Johnson and the LDS Church because the only Church accounts are the ones they published for public use. Internal excommunication documents are not available, and Church leaders involved in the excommunication process are not supposed to discuss the details of the trial. However, evidence suggests that the Church was uncomfortable with Johnson’s public criticism and they likely encouraged local leaders to discipline her.

[1] “Church Court Action Clarified,” Ensign, March 1980, accessed January 13, 2018, https://www.lds.org/ensign/1980/03/news-of-the-church/church-court-action-clarified?lang=eng.
[2] Vera Glaser, “Mormonism and ERA: Is it either/or?” Philadelphia Inquirer, January 14, 1980. MERA MSS 225, Box 7, Folder 22, USUSCA.
[3] Sonia Johnson, From Housewife to Heretic (New York City: Doubleday & Company Inc., 1981), 271–353.