Chapter 5
Home Up


Lavina Fielding Anderson






Since 1989, members of the Church desiring to resign or withdraw have had the option of having their names removed from the rolls, upon request. Before 1989, even though departing members could request that their names be removed, the process still required the convening of a court and the judgment of "excommunication," even though the public announcement "merely should state that his name has been removed from the records of the Church at his request."1 Thus, departing members were forced to endure the humiliating and adversarial process of excommunication which implied wrong-doing through the fact of excommunication and which, even while granting the request, communicated that one’s personal decision was not valid unless and until it was institutionally validated.

The current General Handbook of Instructions (March 1989, 8-4) creates an administrative procedure that does not require the convening of a Church court nor label the departing member as a wrongdoer. The "adult member" must send the bishop of his or her ward a written request that his or her name be removed from Church records. The bishop must then (1) satisfy himself that the member understands that such an action "cancels the effects of baptism, withdraws the priesthood held by a male member, and suspends temple sealings and blessings" and (2) decide that the member "is not likely to be dissuaded." He completes an "Administrative Action" form and forwards it with the member’s letter to the stake president. The stake president will review the documents and, if he concurs, have the bishop send the member a letter stating that the desired action will be taken if the member does not make a written request "for recission" within thirty days. At the end of the thirty days, the stake president will send the documents to the office of the First Presidency. The handbook makes no provision for confirming that the action has been taken nor does it say what the stake president should do if he does not "concur."

If more than one member of a family wishes to withdraw, only one document is necessary; if a member over age eight but under legal age wishes to withdraw, his or her letter of request must also be signed by "the parent, parents, or guardians."

The member’s request is overridden "if a bishop or stake president is considering bringing a member before a disciplinary council. …Name removal should not be used as a substitute or alternative for excommunication or disfellowshipment." It was under this provision that Paul A. Hanks, president of Salt Lake Stake refused to recognize the announcement of feminist author and editor Maxine Hanks (no close relation) in September 1993 that she had resigned from the Church; he had given her notice of a disciplinary council convened to consider charges of apostasy against her; the decision of that council was excommunication.

There are three points in the policy that can be used to harass members in the process of leaving if their ecclesiastical leaders are insensitive and/or punitive. First, because the bishop and/or stake president must not already be "considering" disciplinary action, a member’s request can trigger a search for reasons for such action. Sandy Stone of Salt Lake City, after several years of inactivity, took the step of formally disaffiliating in early 1998 because she no longer wanted the Church to be able to count her among its 10 million members. When she spoke in person to the bishop of the ward into which she had recently moved, he said, "You’ve got to tell me the last ward you were active in. I’ve got to contact the bishop there to be sure you’re not running away from disciplinary action."

Second, because the Administrative Action form requires a "reason" for disaffection, the bishop is given an administrative tool with which to probe for evidence, if he wishes to use it. Most disaffiliating members do not realize that they can refuse to provide any information at all or to provide only a general statement such as, "I don’t want to be a member any longer."

Third, because no provision is made for confirming that the individual’s name has, in fact, been removed, the individual is left in the sometimes uncomfortable position of (1) assuming that the ecclesiastical leaders have taken the action according to policy. In fact, some leaders have refused to act on such requests for weeks and even months; or (2) going back to an ecclesiastical officer with whom the individual may desire no further contact to ask for confirmation. Tony West’s bishop seems to have been an exception by assuring him in the same letter that informed him about his recission option that his name had been removed. (See "Your Church," pp. 147-49.)

A final point of potential harassment is that the bishop or branch president "in some circumstances ... may need to announce that a person’s name has been removed from the records of the Church." The policy does not state what these circumstances would be. A cross reference to Section 10-9 ("Disciplinary Councils") also fails to illuminate. It states only that "if the presiding authority concludes that an announcement is necessary" in a case of voluntary withdrawal, "the announcement should merely state that the action was taken at the person’s request and should not use the word excommunication." Thus, even an unchallenged withdrawal may still be publicly punished by an announcement which will certainly cause speculation and invite judgment.

The possibility of "dignified withdrawal" or "principled resignation," as various Mormons have called removing their names from the records, may be traced largely to the influence of one man, Norman Hancock of Mesa, Arizona, who brought an $18 million lawsuit against the Church in 1985 for refusing to let him withdraw voluntarily. The next edition of the General Handbook of Instructions after the resolution of the Hancock precedent included provisions described above for voluntary withdrawal.



When something is injust, you feel that you have to do something.

—Norman Hancock

In 1985 when these events occurred, the General Handbook of Instructions for bishops and stake presidents did not allow resignation. If someone requested that his or her name be removed from Church records, the only means for accomplishing it was a court resulting in excommunication. The handbook instructed that a court should be held only if "patient efforts to dissuade him are unsuccessful." The summons to this court "should not imply accusations of misconduct." The court should consider "all relevant correspondence and evidence of attempts to persuade him to remain in the Church. ... If the members of the court are satisfied that all possible effort has been expended, the request should be granted." The letter informing the individual of the action "should not include the word excommunication" nor should any public announcement. "It should merely state that his name has been removed from the record of the Church as his request." Still, on the membership record sent back to Church headquarters, "the word ‘excommunicated’ appears in red across the top."2

Norman L. Hancock was born and raised a Mormon.3 His great-great-grandfather, Solomon Hancock, was one of the early converts to the Church and died at Winter Quarters. Norman had grown up in Safford, one of Arizona’s old Mormon towns. In 1983, he was fifty-three years old, a graduate of Brigham Young University, and had taught in the Mesa elementary schools for twenty years. He had also established a personal investment company some time earlier as a side venture, and it had become so vigorous and time-consuming that he decided to retire from teaching, which he did in August 1983, and devote full-time to the business.

He and his wife, Muriel G. Hancock, were the parents of six children, then ages eighteen to thirty-one. The whole family was active in the Church and Norman had served in a variety of positions. In fact, Muriel had been the Relief Society president about 1988-91 ("the best Relief Society president they ever had," he says fondly) while Norman was ward executive secretary. She was released when Norman was called as a counselor in the bishopric where he served from 1981 until 1983.

One of the young couples in the ward was experiencing marital difficulties; the wife, Lisa Nichols (a pseudonym), was Young Women’s president and had sought Norman out for counseling as the marriage slowly unraveled. Even after he was released in early 1983, she still called him when she was deeply troubled. "Muriel knew all about it and was just glad that I could help," Norman recalled. "I knew it wasn’t a good idea to meet alone with Lisa, and I met her in a restaurant once. In retrospect, that wasn’t very good judgement on my part, but it also shows that I wasn’t sneaking around to secret meetings." Still, rumors circulated about them.

On 1 November 1983, he was summoned before the Mesa North Stake high council on 6 November "for investigation of alleged conduct by you in violation of the law and order of the Church." This vague phrases meant, as he learned at the trial, that he had "improperly associated" with Lisa Nichols. He readily admitted the association but denied any wrongdoing, nor did the high council present any evidence of misconduct. "I wasn’t defiant," he says. "I was cooperative. I answered all their questions for an hour and a half and nobody had any evidence of any kind against me. If there’d been even a smidgen, they’d have excommunicated me on the spot. They had the reputation for being really ruthless. In fact, my bishop told me, ‘I know you’re innocent, Norm. This is the first time they’ve had a court and haven’t excommunicated somebody."

Even without evidence, the high council court disfellowshipped him "for Un-Christianlike conduct." A letter signed by the stake presidency (Duane Beazer and counselors David L. Roberts and Ross N. Farnsworth) informed him of the decision and continued:

Disfellowship[ment] means that you are a member of the Church but many of the privileges of membership are denied you. You may continue your payment of tithing and other contributions.

However, you will not be entitled to speak or offer prayers, partake of the sacrament, sustain or vote against Church officers, participate in any way if in attendance at Priesthood Meetings, hold a temple recommend, hold any office in the Church, or attend any meeting of Church officers. You may, however, attend meetings in the consolidated meeting schedule and public conference sessions, providing your conduct is orderly, but you may not take part actively in such meetings. You are encouraged to continue to wear the temple garment.

You have the right to appeal this decision to the First Presidency within 30 days if you feel that the decision is not just and such appeal should be presented in writing to the presiding officer of the court that made the decision.

May we counsel you to avoid any improper association with Lisa Nichols such as that which caused this court to convene. Further association may lead to excommunication.

We sincerely encourage you to take the proper steps toward repentance; and if you continue toward complete repentance, you may at an appropriate time apply for return to full fellowship in the Church again and you will be most welcomed. When you are ready, you should apply to the bishop of the ward in which you then reside and he in turn will seek the approval of the high council court of this stake.

Remember, Church courts are courts of love and redemption, not retribution, and our only purpose is to help you put your life in order and to strengthen you in your quest for exaltation.

The same court also disfellowshipped Lisa after two hours of "grilling her, trying to get her to confess to something."4 Norman was deeply hurt by being disfellowshipped. Muriel remembers that "he suffered so much he went to bed for a week." Still, he was determined to accept it and work through it. Even though it "made me feel bad that they wouldn’t take my word that nothing had happened, I could see that they thought the association itself was dangerous and might lead to something worse. I could see their point of view, even if they couldn’t see mine." He prized his temple marriage and family. He had a strong testimony of the principles of the gospel. He was proud of the strong religious commitment of his children. The loving respect he received from his children, and especially Muriel’s staunch support, made him resolve to accept the disfellowshipment and work toward reinstatement.

Before the court, Muriel had "hoped the whole thing would sort of blow over," as she put it. She had seen Norman’s irritation and frustration as events moved toward the first court "but I just hadn’t been involved." She was out of town, helping their daughter after the birth of a baby when the court was held. She returned at the end of the week and had to face the fact that it was not going to blow over. "Norman had told me there was no wrong-doing, and I believed him. If he’d done something wrong, he’d be the first to say so and change. He’s an honest man, a good man. So of course I believed him. And I saw such anguish as a result of that court."

Ironically enough, it was President Beazer’s unwillingness to accept Hancock’s good faith that led to a crisis. Over the next few months, Hancock was first amused, then outraged, when he discovered that a neighbor was watching his house, checking on his comings and going, and asking other neighbors about his whereabouts. Several times, he heard a strange clicking sound on his telephone and even wondered if his line had been tapped. He finally confronted this neighbor and demanded to know why he was asking questions. The man mumbled something about a "special calling" from the stake president but would say nothing more. Norman insisted, "If you’ve got questions to ask about me, you ask me—not the neighbors or my kids." The neighbor thereupon asked him a question about his activities. Norman promptly responded, "None of your business. Next question?" He also warned the neighbor that any further prying into his activities might result in a libel suit. Norman’s irritation increased when he saw Lisa’s car parked outside the neighbor’s house one evening for two or three hours. He learned that the neighbor had been "grilling" Lisa about her movements and intentions. "Lisa’s business really was none of his business," he pointed out. "She wasn’t his neighbor. He didn’t have any kind of ecclesiastical calling. He was just snooping around for the stake president."

Then in February 1984, President Beazer, called Norman in again and accused him again of "improper association."

Triumphantly he announced, "You had Lisa to dinner on such and such a night when your wife was out of town."

Norman blinked in surprise, then explained, "No, Lisa stopped by—just dropped in to leave some papers. My nephew and his friend were there and we were eating supper. I gave her a salad. A neighbor stopped by while we were all four there. She left before my nephew and his friend. We were never alone."

President Beazer’s face reddened. He turned, grabbed the phone, and called the ward member who had come by, demanding, "Were Norman’s nephew and another man there? They were? Why didn’t you tell me that? This is very important information." He hung up and turned around, obviously piqued at having acted on incomplete information.

When Norman added, "And you owe me an apology, doggone it," President Beazer exploded vindictively, "I’m going to excommunicate you anyway!"

Norman left the meeting fuming. "Here you are. They have all the power. They can ruin your name and your reputation. The truth is on your side. You’re right and he’s wrong, but it doesn’t matter because he’s got the power. The facts don’t matter. Nobody’s going to make the Church back down." Given the fact that he had already been punished despite his claim of innocence and the absence of any proof to the contrary, Norman had no confidence that a second court would prove fairer than the first. The interview with Beazer was the last straw. He and Muriel talked over their options.

Norman had been serving in the bishopric in early 1983 when a local man, Clyde Harmon, requested excommunication over doctrinal reasons. Harmon was attending his own ward when the letter announcing his excommunication "for apostasy at his own request" was read. He had stood up, unashamed, during the announcement. Although Norman did not then know Clyde, they had a mutual friend, Don Crandall, with whom he had a number of conversations. He was regretful when Don also requested excommunication in late 1983. The high councilors asked him his reasons, assuming that he also had doctrinal differences with the Church, but he simply answered, "That’s my business." Norman was assigned to read the letter in priesthood meeting announcing Don’s excommunication and did so very reluctantly.

Even though he disagreed with both men and felt that their excommunications were not necessary, he admired their courage and their dignity. "I looked them up—wanted to know what to do in a case like this," It made a difference to know that there were people who had survived it. They said, ‘It’ll change your life, Norman.’ I said, ‘It’s already changed my life. Being falsely accused and being punished for something I didn’t do changed my life."

He decided to resign, but it was an agonizing decision. John, their youngest son, was just preparing for his mission to Taiwan. Muriel decided to resign as well. Although the question of the injustice done to her husband was important, an even more important reason was her strong love for her family. "The only way to preserve and enrich our marriage was to be together all the way," she explained. "I knew if I stayed in the Church and he got out, it would put a rift between us. We’d raised our children together in the Church, that’s where they were, and that’s where we wanted them to be, but I couldn’t let him do this alone. I know there are ladies who have gone on without their husbands and that the husbands have come back. That’s fine for them. John, our missionary son, told me, ‘Mother, the Church has to come before family.’ I said, ‘No, I’ve always been taught that the family comes first.’ I strongly felt that the only way to preserve the family was to stick it out with Norm. Our son even went to our bishop and asked which comes first, and the bishop said the family. John came back and apologized. Lots of people told me that I’d lose my family. I just didn’t feel that way. My feeling was that my family was strong enough that I would never lose it as long as we stuck together."

Muriel’s decision, as it turned out, shocked the family and the ward much more than Norman’s. "All of our kids called, one after the other, all day long," he remembered. "They’d talk to me and say everything they could think of. And then they’d talk to Muriel. They did everything under the sun they could think of. She never budged. She never got angry. She never wavered."

Together Norman and Muriel wrote a short and dignified letter on 28 February 1984 asking to have their names removed from church records:

Dear President Beazer,

We request our names be removed from the rolls of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Our reasons are of a personal nature and will remain that way. We hold no bitterness or rancor against any person and wish to remain friends with everyone. This decision to leave is one that was carefully thought out.

We would like this done as soon as possible and with the least amount of involvement as possible. We request that any announcement made emphasize that we initiated the withdrawal of our names from the Church.

President Beazer called a court for 4 March 1984, giving the Hancocks only twenty-four hours’ notice. Norman and Muriel both attended and both were questioned separately. After Muriel was questioned for an hour, she was disheartened to hear President Beazer say, "We won’t take your name off the roll. You need another month to make this decision." They called Norman in and announced, "We think your wife should stay in another month."

Norman looked at Muriel, "Is this what you want?"

"No," she answered frustrated. "I want to get out with you."

She remembered that Norman slammed his fist on the table and said, "You let her out now."

That ended the discussion.

The experience for Norman was equally frustrating and even more grueling. It began on a light moment when he joked, "Well, I have some good news and bad news. The good news is that you’re losing me. The bad news is that you’re losing the best member you’ve ever had—my wife." Norman’s and Muriel’s bishop attended as a character witness for Norman and said, "Norman’s the best counselor I’ve ever had. Everybody loves him."

"Yeah," quipped Norman. "That’s why I’m here."

From there, it got dirty. During the court, President Beazer accused Norman of immoral conduct and continued with detailed and sordid denunciations that basically boiled down to rumors, gossip, and innuendo. The neighbor appeared as a "witness"―"but he didn’t have anything to ‘witness’ to because nothing had happened," recalled Norman. "I asked him what he was doing this for. He sort of looked at President Beazer and didn’t answer." Several members of the high council, shocked that the neighbor had been watching Norman, "jumped on him." When Norman asked him directly if he was a "spy" for the stake president, he didn’t answer.

Norman insisted on two points: First, he had done nothing wrong, and the accusations against him were false. Second, as he put it to a reporter, "I pleaded for an hour and a half that I hadn’t done anything wrong, that all I wanted was: I wanted out." Norman was excommunicated "for violation of the law and order of the Church, for not following the conditions of the previous court, and at your request." Muriel’s name was "removed from the records of the Church as you requested." A letter to that effect was delivered to the house by two high councilors. The rest of the letter read:

This [excommunication] means that you are no longer a member of the Church and all privileges of membership are denied, including the wearing of the temple garments and the payment of tithing and other contributions. You may, however, if you so desire, make such payments through a member of your immediate family who is in full standing in the Church, provided that all receipts are written in the name of the family member.

You will not be entitled to speak or offer public prayers, partake of the sacrament, sustain or vote against Church officers, hold a temple recommend, hold any office in the Church, or attend any meeting of Church officers. You may, however, attend meetings in the consolidated meeting schedule and public conference sessions providing your conduct is orderly, but you may not take part actively in such meetings.

You have the right to appeal this decision to the First Presidency within thirty days, if you feel that the decision is not just, and such appeal should be presented in writing to the presiding officer of the court that made the decision.

We sincerely encourage you to take the proper steps towards repentance; and if you continue towards complete repentance, you may at an appropriate time apply for readmission into the Church again and you will be most welcomed.5

May we counsel you to completely disassociate yourself from association with Lisa Nichols.

When you are ready, you should apply to the bishop of the ward in which you then reside and he will seek the approval of the high council court of this stake. Approval of the First Presidency of the Church will also be required at that time.6

Remember, Church courts are courts of love and redemption, not retribution, and our only purpose is to help you to put your life in order and to strengthen you in your quest for exaltation.7

It was signed by the full stake presidency: Duane Beazer, David L. Roberts, and Ross N. Farnsworth.

Norman was very angry at the unfairness of the action. In addition to the rank injustice of being judged guilty when he was innocent and in the absence of any proof, he felt keenly the "contempt" of not being allowed to withdraw from the Church in a dignified manner. "I hadn’t been back to church since I was disfellowshipped. I wasn’t over there arguing with anybody or causing a fuss or trying to make things hard for them. And I didn’t want to go through their doggone procedure. I want out. If a dog is walking away, my dog doesn’t attack him. But in this situation, they jump on you when you’re leaving. It’s what bullies do on the playground."

It was hard for Norman to believe that the Church his family had belonged to for five generations could act so unjustly, and the disillusionment was deep. He had not been naive about the Church. "I knew the leaders were human. I didn’t let that bother me. I knew that people made mistakes. I knew I wasn’t perfect. And I wasn’t some hot-headed kid. I’d been in the Church my whole life. I just didn’t let things bother me. ‘Go along and get along.’ That was my motto."

It was because of his profound religious convictions that he felt the injustice could not be allowed to stand. Norman had personally known of people who had nervous breakdowns after being excommunicated and even a couple of cases in which the excommunicated individual, unable to bear the shame of the excommunication coupled with the original guilt of his wrong-doing, had committed suicide. One of them was a cousin who had been excommunicated for "moral problems." Neither the bishop nor the stake president showed any interest in counseling him or helping him toward reinstatement. He became so depressed and suicidal that Norman and another cousin stayed with him night and day for two or three days until they were able to get him admitted to a private mental hospital. He ran away, and his alarmed family admitted him to the state hospital. He managed to escape from this institution long enough to get a gun and shoot himself. Another local man whom Norman knew said that he was glad he had been excommunicated because he could make a "fresh start." Despite these positive words, however, he killed himself in a moment of despondency.

Norman felt relieved that he had resigned from his teaching position. An attorney he talked to agreed with his assessment that, in a strongly Mormon community like Mesa, being excommunicated had definite social and professional consequences. "Until you’re there, you don’t understand the total loss of dignity from being humiliated in public like that," he said. "You’d have to have support or you’d never make it through. And it makes you mad. You’re loyal to the organization. You think of all the time, all the money, all of the times you put yourself out to do your duty, and it’s like none of it counts. You feel so betrayed, so cheated."

"The more I thought about it, the more I knew what they’d done was wrong," he said. "I knew how it was affecting me, and I was innocent. What if I’d been guilty of what they said I’d done? It was easy for me to see how someone could get depressed enough to want out of this world. Muriel was standing by me to the hilt, but how would I have felt if she’d left me or been part of the people who thought I had it coming? As it was, I knew I was innocent, so it made me mad and that’s probably what saved me."

The sting did not go away; and about six months later, a friend called, telling him to switch on the Phil Donahue show. A guest on the show was Marian Guinn, a divorced mother of four, a nurse, and a member of the Collinsville Church of Christ. She had been having an affair with Pat Sharp, the former mayor in the tiny town of 3,500. When the three presiding elders confronted her, she admitted the affair with the understanding that her confession was to remain confidential. However, they insisted that she confess before the congregation. She refused. They gave her an ultimatum. If she "did not confess publicly in two weeks they would issue a formal statement to the congregation denouncing her ‘fornication’ and calling on members to ‘withdraw fellowship’ from her." Guinn testified: "I did everything but get down on my knees, pleading with them not to bring this before the congregation. ... I’m not saying I wasn’t guilty. I was. But it was none of their business." She resigned from the church but the elders refused to accept it, announcing that "she would remain a member until they expelled her." They read the announcement, denouncing her for "fornication."

She filed a $1.3 million lawsuit against the church and the three elders for invasion of privacy and for emotional distress. Her attorney’s argument was, "He was a single man. She was a single lady. And this is America." The attorney for the elders took the position: "That is the belief of every denomination that I know of, that you just can’t go around doing these things." The jury agreed with Guinn and awarded her $390,000 in damages; they specified additional damages, but both attorneys agreed on a maximum of $390,000.8

Norman listened attentively, frustrated that the show dealt so sketchily with the legal standing of Mrs. Guinn’s situation. There was enough, though, to make some pieces come together for him. Accompanied by Clyde Harmon, Norman flew to Tulsa, Oklahoma, got a transcript of the court proceedings, and met with Guinn’s attorney, Thomas Frasier. When Frasier read the letter from the stake presidency, he looked up from the paper and said simply, "They defamed you. Nail ‘em. I’ll help you any way I can." He also added, "I’d never do another one of these cases again. You can’t believe the hate mail."

Norman went back to Mesa and consulted a lawyer, but acted as his own attorney. On 13 December he filed suit against the Church and President Beazer on the basis that he had requested that his name be removed and that instead he had been subjected to an "illegal" church court in a defamatory action that damaged his reputation for honesty, integrity, and morality, that President Beazer had slandered him in the court by making "false, malicious, and slanderous" accusations of "illicit, improper, and immoral conduct," had violated his privacy, had placed him "in a false light in the public eye," and had permanently injured his "reputation, business and standing in the community" by making a public announcement to the ward officers that circulated swiftly throughout the community. Norman further argued that the action was "extreme and outrageous and done intentionally and recklessly" and hence had caused him "emotional distress." These acts had, he claimed, exposed him "to public contempt, hatred, and ridicule" and had ‘blackened and injured" his reputation."

He asked for $6 million in actual damages and $12 million in punitive damages. He selected this sum of $18 million because eighteen men (his bishopric, stake presidency, and twelve high councilors) had been involved in the defamation.

Ironically, the case was assigned to Superior Court Judge David Roberts, Beazer’s first counselor. Roberts disqualified himself from hearing the case on 11 January 1985.

In speaking to the press, Hancock, a mild-mannered thoughtful man, consistently explained that he felt no bitterness toward either the Church or Beazer, but that what had happened was wrong. "I do not want to destroy the Church, but I believe I had some rights that were violated. ... I just wanted out of the Church and wanted to be left alone. ... They didn’t let me out of the Church when I asked to get out without labeling me. That’s a difficult cross to bear." He affirmed his innocence, repeating that he "did not violate any Church laws." His purpose was to force the Church "to reevaluate [its] court procedures. ‘It will be a better church ... when they let God be the judge of a man’s conduct." He pointed out: "The term ‘excommunicated’ itself is damaging to my reputation among both Mormons and non-Mormons, ... because it presumes someone is bad or has done something wrong. I just wanted out of the Church and wanted to be left alone."

One indication of the assumptions made about an excommunicated Mormon appeared in a letter to the editor of the Latter-day Sentinel by a Tucson man: "Who brought on the acts that caused his excommunication? Surely no one except himself. Did he think of the stress he was causing when he did what he did? ... Didn’t he handle things that brought this whole thing on? I have my opinion of a man of this caliber."9

This man was probably not alone in assuming that Church discipline occurs solely a result of the member’s misdeeds and that there is no possibility that leaders may have may a mistake. Norman also endured the subtle implications from members who had been inactive for years that they were "somehow better than I was" because they were still members. Heartwarmingly, another reader came to his defense:

I don’t know all the circumstances which have brought this to come about, but I do know that this man needs our compassion and understanding and not our judgment and ridicule.

I had the privilege of working a short time for Mr. Hancock when he was a teacher at Longfellow Elementary. He was a great example for me and gave me the confidence and desire I needed to continue working towards my teaching degree. Later I was richly blessed to work under his direction in the Young Women program.

I have a great deal of love and respect for him among with a desire to see him come back into the Church one day.10

About fifty people called the Hancock home, all but two or three expressing support. From Salt Lake City, Church spokesman Don LeFevre managed to suggest that Norman was creating a tempest in a teapot: "It’s all a formality," he told a reporter. "The individual doesn’t even have to be there [at the trial] if he doesn’t want to. … It sounds like the man made a request, the request was granted, and he got the result he sought." He did not respond to the other issues Norman raised about his reputation or about Beazer’s insistence that Norman could not be allowed to leave but had to be expelled.

On 2 January 1985, Kent E. Turley, the local attorney hired by the Church and president of the Phoenix Arizona Stake, filed a motion to dismiss on the grounds that Hancock’s suit was "vague" and because "civil courts lack jurisdiction in religious disputes." He argued: "‘The issues of illegal church court and purported excommunication are clearly a matter of ecclesiastical dispute, which is not a proper subject matter for the civil courts. ... [The U.S. Supreme Court] ruled in 1976 that it would be a constitutional violation to permit civil courts to probe deeply enough into the allocation of power within a hierarchical church so as to decide … religious law governing church policy."’ A 1952 ruling by the California Supreme Court held that a church member makes "an implied contract that in return for the benefits of membership, he will submit to its control and be governed by its laws and customs." Such interference "‘would constitute a violation of the free exercise of religion clause,"’ as guaranteed in both the U.S. and the Arizona constitutions. In sum, Turley was not responding to the charges of invasion of privacy, slander, and deliberate infliction of emotional distress but rather focusing on the jurisdictional question of whether the civil court had "authority to inquire whether the Church court was held illegally or whether the excommunication was valid."

Norman took strong exception to these arguments, since the very cases that Turley cited included provision for the courts to intervene when civil or property rights were invaded and also that continuing membership was a mutual agreement between the member and the Church, not a one-sided decision by the church. There were plenty of cases in which the civil courts had intervened in religious matters when these guidelines had been breached. He prepared to file an amended complaint that expanded the civil rights that he felt had been violated: privacy, slander and libel, intentional infliction of mental distress, assault, and false imprisonment. No church could claim immunity from legal liability for committing such acts just because it is a church. He further charged that the Church had violated its own procedures in excommunicating him.

About the end of January 1985, Kenyon Udall of Thatcher, Arizona, then Regional Representative, called Norman. Their fathers had served together on a high council and he offered his services as a family friend, saying, "I want to help straighten this out." Norman initially received this offer coolly since he assumed that Udall was acting as go-between for Turley and Oscar McConkie, the Church’s attorney in Salt Lake City. Norman was willing to discuss the case with him, however, and, when Udall asked to come to the house, willingly made an appointment. Norm was then preparing to file his response, responding to Turley’s motion and providing more details about the seriousness of the invasion of his privacy. As a sign of good faith, he showed this document to Udall and told him his plans to file the amendment the next day.

Udall asked him to "hold off a couple of weeks" and assured him that he’d seek out a way to resolve the difficulty. When he began negotiating a smaller settlement amount, it was the last straw.

"I don’t want your dang money!" Norman burst out. "I want to get your attention."

The light went on for Udall. "I’ll see what I can do," he promised. He later told a reporter, "I was afraid at first that he was out to hurt the Church, but he didn’t want that. ... He’s excited about [John’s mission]—just as I was when my son was getting ready to serve. I don’t think he has any hard feelings about the Church."

Norman gave him a copy of the amended complaint, and Udall sent it on to McConkie. Five members of the Quorum of the Twelve and Robert D. Hales, now an apostle but then president of the North American Southwest Area, approved a compromise: in exchange for dropping the suit, Norman’s cause for leaving the Church would be listed as his own request and his name would be "removed"; he would not be "excommunicated." Just a few days later, Udall called jubilantly to say, "We’ve got it worked out with McConkie."

Norman asked his son John to accompany him to the meeting with Turley in Phoenix. Turley showed him a newly written letter from Duane Bearer and the other members of the stake presidency announcing: "The decision of the court is that your name be removed from the records of the Church as you requested." The rest of the letter was essentially identical to the first and it was dated 4 March 1984, the date of the original court. In an almost-humorous piece of stage business, Norman signed a letter dropping the suit, then each man picked up his respective letter, simultaneously extended it to the other with one hand and took hold of the extended letter with the other, then simultaneously released the first document. The court ordered the case dismissed on 21 February.

Turley did not speak to reporters from the Phoenix and Mesa papers, but his aide announced that "the Church is very pleased with the way it turned out." However, he told a reporter for the Mormon Latter-day Sentinel that the case did not constitutive a precedent: "No changes have been made to the guidelines in the Church handbook and whether proceedings will change is pure speculation."

Norman saw it differently—and, as matter turned out, more accurately. Feeling very relieved and vindicated by the outcome, Norman told the local newspapers that the outcome was "better than I expected. This is worth more than money to me." He praised the Church for its fairness and stressed, "Hopefully anybody who wants to get out of the Church will use this as a precedent without going through the excommunication process." He put his feelings into a short personal essay:

The First Sign of Tyranny is Blind Obedience

Personal freedom is not a gift but a right. Any action that jeopardizes that right should stir the innermost indignation within a man’s soul.

My dispute with the Mormon Church was not action against something but a defense to protect these rights.

… The American court system and the free press have once again defended the weak against the strong in a clear-cut case of violation of personal freedom.

May this demonstrate clearly for time to come that justice is worth fighting for regardless of the sacrifice. We must stand for this justice even if we must stand alone.

Norman spoke at a freedom of religion meeting in November 1990 in Detroit, Michigan, to tumultuous applause. Muriel got a special round of applause when Norman asked her to stand, Afterward, a man from Alabama asked, "Why didn’t you just walk away instead of fighting him?" Norman responded, "I guess I didn’t make my point clear. You’ve got to stand up for justice." At that point, a man behind him from Czechoslovakia said in broken English, "I understand. The fear is embedded from childhood. You can’t walk away. I have been in a situation where you know there is no justice."

Now, thirteen years later, the hurt and anger have disappeared, leaving mostly good feelings in their wake. Norman affirms his respect for his Mormon heritage and pride in his active children but feels strongly that he made the right decision in standing up for justice. He says with deep feeling, "My wife stood by me. That’s been my greatest support." Muriel says, "I haven’t regretted it. I have a freedom now that I never felt when I was in the Church." Furthermore, they had achieved her goal of maintaining family solidarity. "We’re a very close family—our six children and their spouses and more than twenty grandchildren," she says proudly in her soft, gentle voice. "We all respect each other." Part of this unity has come from the agreement of all parties that discussion of their personal feelings about the Church is off-limits. "We’re proud that our kids all have callings and are serving. We support them. We support our grandkids and never talk about our differences with the Church with the grandkids," says Norman. "We have a really good relationship with all of them. The ones in town are over here every Sunday. I manage investments for all of them. We’ve done vacations for the whole family together. We treasure our time together. But we don’t ever attend church with them, and they don’t ask us about it."

A difficult moment came in May 1990 when John, their youngest son, married in the Mesa Temple and they could not attend the ceremony. "The Mormons spend millions to tell us all that they are a family-oriented organization in the ads they run every day on TV," pointed out Norman, "but they aren’t because I see evidence where they split families.’ ... No parents, regardless of their religious faith, should be barred from seeing their [children] married."

"People ask me if I’d ever go back," reflects Norman. "I usually just pass if off with a joke—tell them I fought too hard to get out. But it goes deeper than that. I don’t know if I’d ever go back. I don’t see how I could ever trust anybody again. Why would I want to be in a position where people have total control over me? Where the facts don’t matter?"

Dealing with the extended family has proved to be the most painful. "Other relatives at our family reunions or funerals or such feel that they have to straighten me out. My uncle just last year was saying I was wrong to sue the Church. I said, ‘If I was wrong, how come they backed down? How come they changed the wording of the letter? Doesn’t that mean I was right?’ I understand why they want to fix things, but I don’t back down and after awhile they come to terms with it."

It is a source of great satisfaction to him that his family is united, that his business has done well financially, that he and Muriel enjoy good health and a close relationship, and that they have made a new circle of friends. "People kind of want to assume that your life falls apart when something like this happens," he commented. "It doesn’t." He is even philosophical about the fact that Duane Beazer was called as a mission president. "I’m in business. An organization has to protect its officers."

Unexpectedly, he began getting phone calls from all over the country from troubled Mormons who also wanted to resign their membership without excommunication—over a thousand, he estimates, in the last fifteen years. Willingly he shared with them the lessons he had learned from his experience and helped them draft letters of resignation. "When you want to just leave," he explained, "it’s not right that you should have to put up with someone saying, ‘No, you can’t resign. We’re going to fire you. We’re going to kick you out.’ It’s a way for them to say, ‘We’re still in control. We’re the ones who have the power, not you." He recalled, "I’ve heard a ton of horror stories. I don’t know whether to believe them all, but I’ve really heard some heart-breakers."

One of these individuals was a high priest in Utah who felt that some practices in his quorum were "unrighteous." He met privately with his stake leaders in January 1984 and they promised that matters would be corrected. By March, when no changes had occurred, he refrained from offering a sustaining vote during ward conference. Again the stake leaders assured him that they would take corrective measures. Again, nothing was done. This time, he wrote to the General Authorities describing conditions and registering on paper a vote of opposition. To his amazement, he was immediately excommunicated on the basis of a letter written by a woman who claimed that he had committed adultery with her. He was not allowed to see the letter. It was never read to him. He was not allowed to confront the witness against him or ask any questions. One of his wife’s friends told her that the woman had gone back to the leaders and tried to retract her statement but was not allowed to. He appealed to the First Presidency, but the First Presidency sustained the stake president who instructed "everyone in my neighborhood not to talk to me." They even threatened not to process his nephew’s mission papers if he visited his uncle.

Another individual had joined another Christian church and told his bishop that "I’d just like to quit being a member of the LDS Church." Although joining another Church was then considered reasonable grounds for acting on his request, the bishop went further, counseling his wife of thirty-seven years to leave him as he "was a damnable apostate." His former LDS friends shunned him, following the advice of Church leaders not to associate with or do business with an "apostate."

Norman also willingly helped a number of people draft letters of resignation and was pleased when they reported that their action had been accepted. One of these "model" letters which had the desired effect read:

This letter is formal notification to you and your Church that I11 and my children have resigned from membership in your church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and henceforth deny and renounce any and all connection thereto. You therefore have no right to carry our names on the membership records of your church. I therefore request that you send me written notification that our names have been removed from the records of your church and that such notification include specific acknowledgement that:

1. We have, of our own free will, resigned from membership in your church and renounced all belief therein and all connection thereto.

2. Having removed ourselves from membership in your church, we are therefore no longer subject to it in any way, and are therefore not liable or subject to excommunication or any similar proceeding, and therefore:

3. We have not been excommunicated or disfellowshipped from your church, but:

4. We are no longer members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and our names have been removed from the records of your church membership specifically for the reason and no other reason than that we requested their removal.

Please understand that we are not members of your church, right now, by our own choice and action stated above. Accordingly, you should write on your ward records of our former memberships: "Has withdrawn from membership. Please remove name from Church membership records" and send it immediately to the membership department at your Church headquarters.

Church courts are for Church members. Since by our own choice and action of resignation we are no longer members, convening any Church court regarding us would be wholly inappropriate and unwarranted action which I would regard as deliberate defamation of our good character and reputation, for which appropriate redress from you personally and the Church corporately will be sought through due process of law. Additionally, newspapers with national and international circulation will receive notice of your treatment of us. …

I hope this letter has not seemed unfriendly, for we certainly have no personal malice toward you or any members of your Church. However, any efforts by home teachers, visiting teachers, or any other representatives of your Church to contact us in person or by phone will be considered an attempt to abrogate my free agency, and a very unwelcome invasion of our privacy.

Be assured that I am well aware of our rights under the Constitution and laws of our land with respect to all of the above, and am prepared to take legal action if necessary to insure them. I trust, however, that this will not be necessary; that your response will be swift (thirty days should be more than adequate) and to the point, as described above.

(signed by the individual and separately by each child)


Simultaneously with Norman and Muriel’s ordeal was that of Darla Tarrant of Holladay, Utah, who was making her third try in fifteen years to have her name removed from the Church’s records.12 Tarrant, who had grown up in Provo, began to doubt the Church’s claims of being true when she was a teenager. She was particularly bothered by the Church’s attitude toward women. She was a nurse and had worked for sixteen years at Cottonwood Hospital in Salt Lake City where she served as clinical coordinator of the medical unit and established the first primary care nursing unit in Utah, then served as head nurse of the medical-surgical unit at the Veterans’ Administration Hospital and as an officer in the Utah Nurses’ Association. In the late 1960s when she was in her early thirties, she asked to have her name removed from the records. Her bishop took no action. A few years later, she tried again. This time she heard that "they couldn’t find my membership records." As a result, she "felt the effort required ... was not worth it. ‘I’ve gotten angry in the past and felt it was hopeless and attempted to forget."

Then in 1984, Tarrant, by then a fifty-year-old widow, learned that she had terminal ovarian cancer. One of the items of unfinished business she did not want to leave behind her was membership in the Mormon Church.

"It’s for the same reason that I wouldn’t want my name as a member of the Ku Klux Klan or the Nazi Party. I feel the same way about the Church,’ Tarrant said. ‘I’ve lived here in a state where I’ve experienced the oppression of women by the Church." She added, "I don’t want it to be assumed that I believe what the believers believe. Because I’m a feminist, it’s a political statement, too." She described her frustration as feeling "caught in a trap … because it’s something I want to do before I die." She knew other people who also wanted out but who wouldn’t "try because they don’t want to go through the humiliation and hassle of getting out. … [But] when you reach a certain point, that doesn’t bother you. You just do it, whatever you have to do."

She had not been active in the Church for thirty years but she contacted Arthur Ford, bishop of Holladay First Ward in Salt Lake City. He told her first that he couldn’t find her membership record. Then he told her that they had found it but it was in her name by a previous marriage and would have to be forwarded to Church headquarters. Tarrant felt that "they’re stalling and hoping that I will indeed die and that way they will get rid of me. ... If they had any caring or compassion, you’d think that they would honor my request at this point." This failure "reflects a paternalistic, patronizing attitude," she felt. Exasperated with the inaction, she wrote a letter that was published in the Salt Lake Tribune on 8 February 1985, describing her experiences and expressing her feelings:

I am a middle-aged woman who is terminally ill with cancer. Since I have no hope of recovery, I have been concluding my "unfinished business" since last September.

At that time I contacted a bishop to request formal excommunication from the LDS Church, because that is the only avenue of disassociating oneself from the organization.

I submitted my request in writing and have made contract at frequent intervals since then only to be given vague excuses. At my last call, I asked what was being done and was told, "Nothing." I asked why and the answer given was, "Just because I haven’t."

I strongly believe that this attitude reflects the prevailing bias of the Church that women do not know their own minds and are not competent to make their own decisions about their own lives.

I have not attended church for over thirty years and I have requested excommunication three times from three different bishops over the past ten years with the same patronizing response of having my wishes ignored.

In my personal experience, I know many people who are non-believers and non-participants who are counted as members of the LDS Church. This leads me to believe that it is very likely that those inflated membership rolls are filled with thousands who are also reluctantly numbered among the sheep. In fact, it appears that the Church’s tally of its flock is a farce and a joke.

Seeing that again I am, in effect, being denied excommunication, I wish to proclaim publicly that my enforced continuation of membership is morally repugnant to me and is grossly discordant with my sense of worth and personal values.

This letter attracted considerable attention, and she reported in a follow-up newspaper account: "I expected to be harassed, but quite the opposite happened. I received many wonderful letters from people who have gone through the same thing." Two weeks later, she followed it up with another letter to Bishop Ford on 22 February 1985 worded even more strongly and spelling out in vehement detail her objections to the Church:

This is to inform you that I hereby resign from the Mormon Church and demand that my name be stricken from the records. ... Be advised that I take this step by the power of my free agency and under the right to freedom of religion as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.

I insist that the record and the letter notifying me that my name has been removed … show that the only reason that my name has been removed is that I have insisted it is to be so as an act of resignation.

As a United States citizen, I have the constitutional right to resign and I will proceed with legal action against you personally and the Church corporately if anything is done to libel my good name and cause me any loss of reputation because of your failure to comply with this letter of resignation without delay.

She pointedly expressed her opinion that Joseph Smith was "not a prophet but a confidence man" and denounced "the so-called church" as "a misogynous cult built on lies and intimidation. The patriarchy is no more than a bunch of bullies and senile bigots who elevate their egos by standing upon the backs of women whom they regard only as breeders and servants." She concluded:

Any attempt of home teachers, visiting teachers or other representatives of the LDS Church contact me will be considered an invasion of my privacy and an infringement of free agency. I will not participate in any Church court or trial because you have no right to judge me.

She sent copies not only to the bishop but also the stake president, to Presiding Bishop Victor L. Brown, Sr., to Saints Alive, to the ACLU, and to the National Organization of Women. This time, she got action:

While insisting [that] the letter had no impact on the case, Ford has scheduled a bishop’s court Feb. 27 [1985]. …

"I’m going to acknowledge her request," Ford said. " I’m just planning now to have her name deleted." …

Ford insisted Tarrant’s case had not been purposely held up. "It was only a few months ago," he said of her request. "I didn’t even have her membership—I didn’t even know her."

Church spokesman Jerry Cahill, asked about the Church’s apparent unresponsiveness, commented that leaving the Church "is a very serious matter. . . . The Church feels the responsibility of making certain that people who contemplate this step understand what they’re doing. It’s a decision that has eternal considerations. We do not want to do anything hastily." He did not say whether Tarrant’s fifteen-year effort constituted "haste."

On 1 March 1985 Darla Tarrant received a one-sentence letter from the bishop saying that "your request for resignation has been granted." Even though she had been inactive for decades, she felt "freer than ever before in my life." She died two months later in May 1985.

Interviewed about this case, Norman Hancock, who by this time had received over a hundred phone calls of support, expressed complete sympathy. He never met Darla Tarrant although he talked to her a dozen or so times on the phone. He described the Church’s court procedure as "a devastating process. ... If they have to frighten their members into staying, then there is something wrong. It’s almost easier to get out of East Berlin than to get out of the Mormon Church." He asked the question that many pondered, "By mutual agreement, you should be able to say you’re leaving. Why do they have to darken your name?"

Among Tarrant’s supporters were members of Saints Alive, formerly Ex-Mormons for Jesus. According to a follow-up story in Sunstone, Hal Jackson of Saints Alive "believes the right to have one’s name removed from the membership list of the LDS Church is a matter of freedom of religious affiliation which is constitutionally protected. Even having to ask the Church to remove one’s name underscores the fact that the authorities still have some control over one’s life." He suggested that Mormons who want out should simply declare themselves nonmembers: "If a person by their free agency can join any church, they should have the same free agency to resign. ... That’s just a matter of good common reason and rights." Saints Alive published an eight-page booklet titled Exodus which details suggestions on how to remove a name from LDS Church records. Send a certified Letter, it instructs, to your bishop or branch president, and stake president. It even recommends sending a letter to the Presiding Bishop at LDS Church headquarters.13

Another supporter was John W. Fitzgerald, who had been excommunicated in December 1972 for his opposition to the Church’s ban on giving the priesthood to African American men. He wrote a letter supporting Darla Tarrant and Norman Hancock:

The guarantee voiced in the Constitution of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion, also contains with it the concept of freedom from religion; that no individual or religious organization can coerce or force anyone to join or stay in any religious group against his or her will.

Ms. Darla Tarrant ... wrote a letter ... stating she had written to three LDS bishops in the last ten years requesting her name be removed are the rolls of their Church. Her requests were belatedly granted.

… Norman L. Hancock’s suit against the LDS Church for possible defamation of character ... was settled out of court when the Church agreed to drop him from membership without the taint of excommunication, which is very real in Mormon communities.

[It is time for the Church to take] a long look at their policy on excommunication and their practice of ignoring requests of individuals to have their names removed from the rolls of their church.

The LDS Church is a pseudo democracy. It never claimed to be a democracy like the one we believe in, where secrets ballots are taken, and it is nobody’s business how one votes.14



1General Handbook of Instructions, 1983 (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1983), 59.

2"Getting Out’ of the LDS Church," Sunstone, April 1985, 52-53.

3Unless otherwise noted, the details about the Hancock case are taken from Norman L. Hancock and Muriel 0. Hancock, interviewed by Lavina Fielding Anderson, 8 January 1994; Brent Whiting, "Ex-Mormon Sues Church for Millions," Arizona Republic, 17 December 1984, B-i, B-2; Mike Padgett, "Mesan Enters Libel Suit against Mormon Church," (Mesa) Tribune, 18 Dec. 1984; Associated Press, Phoenix, "Former Member Sues LDS for Defamation," Salt Lake Tribune, 19 Dec. 1984; Mike Padgett, "Church Seeks Dismissal of Libel Suit," (Mesa) Tribune, 19 Jan. 1985; Brent Whiting, "Mormons Ask Court to Kill Suit," Arizona Republic, 13 Jan. 1985, B-i, B-5; Mike Padgett, "Mesan Drops Suit Against Latter-day Saints," Mesa Tribune, 9 February 1985, A-22; "Mormon Suit Deal Approved," Arizona Republic, 10 Feb., 1985, B-i, B-2; "Suit Dropped after Church, Ex-Mormon Reach Accord," Deserec News, 10 Eeb. 19895, B-4; "18 Million Law Suit Dropped in Excommunication Case," Latter-day Sentinel, 23 Feb. 1985; Lawn Griffiths, "Parents Try to End Ban on Attending Mormon Wedding," (Grand Junction, CO) Daily Sentinel, 7 July 1990, 1. Punctuation, spelling, grammar, and capitalization standardized.

4She and her husband later divorced; she completed a master’s degree, remarried, and "is doing very well," says Norman.

5The post-suit version of this paragraph contains two variations: " … steps toward returning to the Church … and you will be most welcomed."

6This last sentence was omitted from the post-suit letter.

7The post-suit version of this paragraph contained the following rewording: " … and our only purpose is to strengthen you …

8Republic Wire Service, "Denouncing Mom’s ‘Sin’ Costs Church $390,000," photocopy of unidentified newspaper clipping, 16 March 1984; "Marian and the Elders," Time (magazine), 26 March 1984, 70.

9Albert Christensen, ‘Who Brought on the Acts …?" Latter-day Sentinel, 12 Jan., 1985, 2.

10Julie Jorgensen. Letter, ibid., n. d.

11Names have been silently omitted.

12Darla Tarrant, "Seeks Excommunication," Salt Lake Tribune, 8 Feb. 1985, A-17; Joan O’Brien, "Pair Tells of Frustrating Attempts to Resign from Mormon Church," Salt Lake Tribune, 24 Feb. 1985, B-1, B-3; Associated Press, Salt Lake City, "Dying Woman Continues Fight to Get Off Church Rolls," (Spokane) Spokesman-Review, 24 Feb. 1985, A-15; UPI, Salt Lake City, "Dying Feminist Wants to Get Out of the Mormon Church," (Mesa) Tribune, 25 Feb. 1985, A-4; "Widow Manages to Free Name from LDS Rolls," Salt Lake Tribune, 9 March 1985, B-6; "Darla D. Tarrant, Former Head of Utah Nurses Association, Dies," Salt Lake Tribune, 13 May 1985, D-2; "Excommunicated Man Sues Church," Sunstone, April 1985, 52-53.

13"’Getting Out’ of the LDS Church," Sunstone, April 1985, 52; O’Brien, "Pair Tells of Frustrating Attempts," B-3.

14John W. Fitzgerald, "Freedom from Religion," Salt Lake Tribune, F6 March 1985, A-17.