By Michael J. Weiss
December 03, 1979 12:00 PM

I came from the most orthodox background you could ask for,” says Sonia Johnson. “In our home we grew up thinking we were Mormons first and human beings second.” Last year, as a nascent feminist, the 43-year-old housewife from Sterling Park, Va. began to regard herself as a woman first. Deeply disturbed when the national president of her church wrote a letter denouncing the Equal Rights Amendment, she eventually became co-founder of a 500-member organization calling itself Mormons for ERA.

For that act of defiance, and for her subsequent efforts in behalf of the ERA, Johnson now faces an agonizing dilemma. Still a devout Mormon, she is threatened with excommunication from the faith her family has embraced for five generations. Charged with preaching false doctrine and undermining church authority, she goes before a three-man church tribunal this weekend that will decide whether to expel her from her home congregation. Since her chief accuser, Ward Bishop Jeffrey Willis, will also serve as her judge, she suspects she will not be acquitted. “Church officials are so angry,” says Johnson, “they just want to punish me.”

For her, being forced to choose between her religion and her social convictions “is like trying to decide which child to save from the fire.” Though told she is violating Mormon law, she insists that the issue is one of politics, not of faith. She argues that the council of 12 males which runs her church in Salt Lake City has never made its antagonism to the ERA a matter of doctrine, yet is covertly attempting to engineer the amendment’s defeat on the grounds that it would jeopardize the solidarity of the family. “The men in Salt Lake are trying to control the politics of the whole country on this issue,” she complains, “and they’re not telling anyone that their lobbying is organized by the church.”

Born in Logan, Utah, the daughter of a teacher in a Mormon seminary, Sonia herself studied at Utah State University, where she received a doctorate in English education. There she met her husband, Richard Johnson, a Baptist whom she converted to Mormonism. His work as a statistician for the Agency for International Development took them to Nigeria, South Korea and Malaysia, where Sonia taught English in college, and she was unaware of the mounting home front furor over women’s rights until they returned to Virginia in 1976. It was only last year that she enrolled in the crusade for the ERA, but her Mormon credentials won attention immediately. Her appearance before a congressional committee infuriated Utah’s arch-conservative Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Mormon elder. “He really lit into me,” Johnson remembers. “Aides were tugging at each arm and passing him notes to cool it.” Though startled by the outburst, she was grateful for the publicity that followed. “Orrin Hatch is really responsible for our group becoming a national organization,” she says.

Johnson realized church fathers would be angered by her campaign, especially after her group hired a plane to fly a banner over Salt Lake City reading “Mormons for ERA Are Every-where.” Still, she was stunned when a closed-door hearing was announced on the charges against her, and unfounded rumors that she had committed adultery—the usual reason for such a session—reached as far as her family in Utah. Though her mother favors the ERA, one of Sonia’s brothers has called for her excommunication, and her children have been ostracized in the local Mormon community. Even now, she says, she would be devastated by expulsion from her church. “It would be a grievous thing,” she admits. “But I’ve told Jeff Willis that if he excommunicates me, I cannot repent, because I haven’t done anything wrong.”