SALT LAKE CITY — Sex therapist Lisa Butterworth has long been willing to delve into sensitive sexuality questions with clients who belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They seek her out to have open and frank conversations about the faith's strict rules.
But after seeing another prominent sex therapist she considers a close friend and colleague recently kicked out of the church, Butterworth is worried fewer church members will seek help in fear of being reprimanded.
Butterworth, a church member living in Idaho, is among a contingent of mental health professionals who fear Natasha Helfer's ouster will further embolden a culture of shame. She wrote a letter condemning the decision that's been signed by over 800 mental health professionals.
Helfer was excommunicated and lost her appeal last month to remain in the faith known widely as the Mormon church — a move critics say reflects the church doubling down on some of its more conservative views on sexuality. The Salt Lake City-based church has cited comments she made in support of removing the stigma around pornography, masturbation and same-sex marriage, saying that contradicts church teachings.
Such an ouster is rare and is the harshest punishment available for a member of the faith like Helfer, who had cultivated a national reputation of pushing for mental health advocacy among church members. The majority of her patients come from a Latter-day Saint background, and many are mixed-faith couples in which one person belongs to the church and another has left.
Lauren Rogers, who was raised in the church, started a petition urging the church to reverse the decision and organized a protest outside its Salt Lake City headquarters. She said she wanted to fight for Helfer after her brother was excommunicated in 2015 for sharing his experience as a gay church member online.
"I wanted to make up for not being there for (my brother) and be there for this woman who was trying to protect people like him in the church," said Rogers, who lives in Maricopa, Arizona. "Excommunication needs to done away with. I think it's an abusive practice ... and it's a tool the church uses to silence people."
Helfer said she fears her case could set a precedent for removing other professionals and result in devastating consequences for church members who may no longer feel safe seeking treatment.
"Doing this to me alone is sending the message both to clinicians and, more importantly, to the public that you shouldn't trust sex therapists," Helfer said. "Even if it doesn't necessarily mean that other professionals will directly be affected, it will affect the population as to who will seek out those kinds of services."
Church officials declined to comment on Helfer losing her appeal or the criticism against them.
Members are taught not to have sex before marriage, kiss passionately or arouse "emotions in your own body" that are supposed to be reserved for marriage. Gay sex also is forbidden.
Scott Gordon, president of FAIR, a volunteer organization that supports the church, acknowledged that it can be difficult for gay and transgender individuals to belong to a faith that they feel doesn't fully accept them. But, he said, Helfer was not ousted because of her profession or her views on LGBTQ issues or sexuality.
"While that may seem like it's the issue, it's really not the issue," Gordon said. "The issue is actively going out and campaigning against the church. What the content is is almost irrelevant."
The message of Helfer's excommunication and that of other members seems to be that the faith can tolerate diverse opinions but "when that behavior seeks to influence others, then that's when the church takes official action," said Kathleen Flake, a professor of Mormon studies at the University of Virginia.
Sam Young, who led a campaign criticizing the church's practice of allowing lay leaders to do one-on-one interviews with young people that sometimes included sexual questions, was kicked out in 2018. Kate Kelly, founder of a group pushing for women to be allowed in the lay clergy, was excommunicated in 2014.
In Helfer's case, her former church leaders in Kansas sent her a letter in April after holding a disciplinary hearing explaining the reasons for her removal. The letter said her professional activities did not play a role but that she could no longer be a member because of a "pattern of clear and deliberate opposition to the Church, its doctrine, policies, and its leaders."
After a year, they will consider allowing her back if she stops using "disparaging and vulgar language to describe the Church and its leaders" and attends church meetings, the letter says.
Helfer said she has no plans to change her professional services but that she's already heard from some clients who say they're no longer comfortable working with her.
"My practice will survive," she said. "But a family with a young gay child may deal with their issue very differently after witnessing something like this — that may have long-term implications for them."
"That's where my heart weighs heaviest," she said.
Eppolito is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.