"Their ongoing bullying begs us to fight back," Weston Clark, a former Mormon from Salt Lake City, tells PEOPLE

By Cathy Free
Updated November 06, 2015 03:30 PM
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Credit: D'Arcy Benincosa

Mormon Church leaders have sparked outrage with a decision to ban gay couples from having their children blessed and baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. In their new policy manual, leaked to social media on Thursday, the church also said that Mormon same-sex couples will be considered apostates under new church guidelines.

After excommunicated Mormon blogger and podcaster John Dehlin of Logan, Utah, put segments of a new guidebook for the church’s lay leaders on Facebook, incensed Mormons and non-Mormons immediately began posting comments and speaking out against the edict.

“This will have a high rate of collateral impact on families,” Tyson Keith Holbrook, 39, a financial consultant and father of four from Salt Lake City, tells PEOPLE. Holbrook and his wife, JaCoy, 38, left the Mormon Church in 2012 because they disagreed with the church on numerous issues, including same-sex marriage.

“Utah has a high population of LGBT people, and now for a child to be a member of the church, they will be forced to choose between their parent(s) or the church,” Holbrook tells PEOPLE. “It is abhorrent and inexcusable to do this to these families. We already have an issue with suicides of young people in Utah, and it is largely tied to religious beliefs and/or being gay.”

Leaders in Salt Lake City’s LGBT community are equally disturbed by the Mormon Church’s new policy.

“News by the LDS Church to exclude children of LGBT families is unfortunate and deeply saddening,” says Derek Kitchen, 27, a newly-elected gay Salt Lake City Council representative. “The innocence of children should never be preceded by a blanket judgment of unworthiness based on their environment. This is how potential is stifled and missed opportunities are created.”

“In our universe, all God’s children have a place in the choir,” adds Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah in Salt Lake City. “The (Mormon) Church is absolutely free to interpret and define their doctrine. That’s not my call. But gay couples can take heart that both their relationships and their children are legally recognized in Utah and all throughout the United States.”

The unexpected social media posting of the manual for lay leaders of the religion’s 15 million members worldwide had church officials scrambling on Friday to release a statement.

“Church handbooks are policy and procedural guides for lay leaders who must administer the Church in many varied circumstances throughout the world,” says Mormon Church spokesman Eric Hawkins. “The Church has long been on record as opposing same-sex marriages. While it respects the law of the land and acknowledges the rights of others to think and act differently, it does not perform or accept same-sex marriage within its membership.”

In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, children are blessed by priesthood holders when they are infants, establishing them on the membership rolls, but they are not baptized until age 8.

According to the new church handbook, “A natural or adopted child of a parent living in a same-gender relationship, whether the couple is married or cohabiting, may not receive a name and a blessing,” and may not be baptized unless permission is granted by church officials and the child “disavows the practice of same-gender cohabitation and marriage.”

The move will marginalize children and set them up to be outcasts in the community, says Weston Clark, 36, a former Mormon from Salt Lake City who is now a stay-at-home dad to Xander, 5, and Zoe, 1, and is married to Brandon Mark, an attorney.

“I want to be able to be a good and civil neighbor to the LDS community,” Clark tells PEOPLE, “but it is becoming increasingly difficult when we have to constantly defend our own children from hatred and marginalization. Their ongoing bullying begs us to fight back. Not doing so shows us to be the poor parents the LDS Church believes us to be, while standing up for our children against their harmful bigotry proves us to be the amazing parents we are.”

“Whether or not the LDS leadership allows our children in their church or not is not of such a concern to us,” adds Paul Redd-Butterfield, a Sandy, Utah, artist and gay father of twin boys who is married to Tony Butterfield, a University of Utah chemical engineering professor. “What we are concerned about is the message that this sends to our children’s LDS friends, that our boys are somehow ‘less than’ because of who their parents are.”

Gay rights advocates in Utah say that the Mormon Church’s new stance – believed to be the most controversial since church officials backed Proposition 8, California’s attempt to ban same-sex marriages in 2008 – will only deepen the divide between church members and the LGBT community. But they’re not giving up.

“The road the LGBT community and the Mormon Church have walked since Proposition 8 has had twists and turns, with many ups and some downs,” says Jim Dabakis, a gay Utah state senator from Salt Lake City. “I suspect there will be many more before we reach the summit. Let the journey continue.”