Kate Kelly shows a digital copy of the letter which informed her of her excommunication
Kate Kelly stands frozen at an empty intersection in Salt Lake City. There is no traffic coming in either direction.
“I need to wait for the signal,” she says, “I’m obedient, I’m a Mormon.” She laughs, her eyes twinkling behind her thick, retro-style glasses.
But if Ms Kelly thinks she’s an obedient Mormon, her Church leadership does not. She was excommunicated in June for founding a campaign to ordain women to the priesthood.
“You know, normally excommunication in our Church is for really grave sins like murder and child abuse,” she says. “I was excommunicated for stating a fact, which is that men and women are not equal in our Church.”
In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) – which claims a membership of 15 million worldwide – any male from the age of 12 and “in good standing” can join the priesthood. No female can.
Unlike other churches, including the Church of England which last month agreed to allow women priests to be promoted to bishop, the LDS Church does not have a professional priesthood. It operates what it calls a “lay” clergy – male members take turns to fulfil the roles.
Take the bishop of Ms Kelly’s former ward in Virginia – the man who excommunicated her. He is a lawyer for ExxonMobil.
She is also a lawyer, a human rights lawyer, and she sounds like one as she dissects the process her bishop and other male leaders followed to remove her from the Mormon faith.
“We’re talking about an Inquisition,” she says. “The men who punished me think they are kicking me out of heaven.”
Frankly, there’s a soul at stake here and we’re concerned about that”
The 33-year-old clearly does not agree, and she is unrepentant for founding the web-based group, Ordain Women, where several hundred men and women have posted their profiles in support.
While there have been earlier calls for the ordination of Mormon women, Ms Kelly’s group posed a new challenge, using the web and modern, political methods to agitate for change. That prompted the Church leadership to take tough action.
Mike Otterson, the managing director of public affairs for the LDS, says he will not speak specifically about Ms Kelly’s case, but he insists that the excommunication process is always fair, conducted locally, and decided only after careful consideration.
“We often refer to these proceedings as courts of love,” he says.
“We show a great deal of patience, because ultimately, frankly, there’s a soul at stake here and we’re concerned about that.”
He insists that women already have a lot of responsibility in the Church, including the right to preach from the pulpit, but that most women do not seek the priesthood.
Ms Kelly was excommunicated for apostasy. Dictionaries define an apostate as someone who renounces their faith. But in Mormonism questioning church teaching and, “especially encouraging other people to take the same position,” says Mike Otterson, will qualify someone as an “apostate”.
Ms Kelly says the charge of apostasy was “completely absurd” and she is appealing against the decision.
Having faced persecution after its founding in the 19th Century, the LDS Church continued to encounter hostility and suspicion, and is still sensitive to criticism.
Kate Kelly has crossed a red line, says Kathleen Flake, a professor of Mormon studies at the University of Virginia. Mormonism functions as a family, she says.
“And if the family’s going to fight, it’s very disloyal to have that fight outside the family.”
The male hierarchy speaks of a Church that is led by divine revelation and follows the Bible. Jesus and the apostles were male, and Jesus did not ordain women. Full stop.
But those on the side of women’s ordination – a small but vocal minority – insist that the leadership at the top has changed its position on one critical issue before.
The exclusion of black men from the priesthood is a long and painful chapter in Mormon history. The leadership changed that in 1978, after what they described as a revelation from God, and more than a decade after the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
So, if God can change his mind about black people, why, asks Kate Kelly, can he not do so with women?
“It’s a red herring,” says Mike Otterson. He says that the Church leadership had put out statements before 1978 indicating that the ban on black male priests was temporary, based on comments made by the early leader, Brigham Young, among others.
“There is no such condition you can cite in relation to women’s ordination. It is simply not on the agenda for the Church,” he says.
Gender differences are clearly defined in Mormonism and central to the theology. The Church teaches that families will stick together in the afterlife. Men will inherit planets. Women will help populate them.
And while the practice of polygamy was dropped in 1890, the concept remains in the afterlife. A man can be married or “sealed” to more than one woman after death, but not the other way around.
If the religion is so patriarchal, why does Kate Kelly want to return to the fold? She could join a more liberal offshoot, the Community of Christ, which ordains women. Or she could leave religion altogether.
“Mormonism is my spiritual home,” she says.
“And if I see that my home needs renovations I invest in making it a better place.”
Jane Little’s documentary, “Sister Saints – Women and the Mormons” can be heard in Heart and Soul on the BBC World Service.
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