Discipline, Excommunication, and Name Removal
LDS Discipline and Excommunication:
A New Guide for Gay and Lesbian Mormons
Originally published as "All About Excommunication for the Gay and
Lesbian Mormon," by T. Robert Axelson and L. Paul Mortensen, with
the help and cooperation of Affirmation: Gay & Lesbian Mormons, Los
Angeles Chapter, October 1983. Also published as "Excommunication:
A Survival Manual for Gay and Lesbian Mormons," June, 1985. Revised
by Hugo Salinas, June 2002.
At a time when most Christian churches are moving away from old
disciplinary practices, the LDS Church continues to use excommunication
as a tool to threaten, control, discipline, and expel its members.
In the early 1990s the LDS Church also established a system of informal
discipline, which allows bishops to control the most personal
aspects of members' daily lives. However, Church leaders keep policies
about discipline confidential, thus making it difficult for members
to know what rights and privileges they have.
Gays and lesbians are at particular risk of being subjected to
the Church's disciplinary practices. Therefore, we at Affirmation:
Gay and Lesbian Mormons have prepared this new guide. It replaces
the old guide All About Excommunication, incorporating all
the procedural changes made in the 1998 Church Handbook of Instructions.
If the time ever comes when a Church leader attempts to discipline
or excommunicate you, we want you to be prepared and make educated
decisions. Moreover, we want you to be able to turn this act of
abuse into an educational opportunity for your leaders and a growing
experience for yourself.
Some Church leaders want you to believe that by excommunicating
you they are taking everything from you, but the truth is that they
can only take what you let them. They cannot take away your spirituality,
your testimony, or your salvation. There are many gay and lesbian
Mormons who have gone through this process and have survived. They
prospered. They became better Christians. If you ever feel that
you have been abandoned, or if you wish to discuss excommunication
with someone who shares this experience, we invite you to contact
Affirmation. We will put you in touch with someone who can help.
Excommunication vs. Name Removal
In practice, most gay and lesbian Mormons become inactive before
the LDS Church can discipline them. Often the Church loses track
of where they live or simply loses interest in them. There is also
a growing number of Mormons who choose to have
their names removed from the Church's records. Even though a
request for name removal could potentially trigger an excommunication,
many bishops are willing to let gay and lesbian members go, especially
if they do not have any hard evidence of homosexuality when the
request is made. Once the name is removed, the Church cannot investigate
or punish that person ever again.
Many gay and lesbian Mormons, however, choose to remain on the
Church rolls. Many of them are proud to be Mormon, and do not see
why they should sever their formal association with the Church.
They can be active, semi-active, or inactive. Some are celibate
and some are sexually active. Some are living with a partner in
a committed relationship. In some cases, bishops know about gay
and lesbian members in their wards and choose to look the other
way. But according to the 1998 Church Handbook of Instructions,
homosexuality is "a serious transgression" and practicing gays and
lesbians should be disciplined.
If you are gay or lesbian and your bishop knows it, you may have
already encountered the Church's system of informal discipline.
As part of this system, a bishop may suspend your right to partake
of the sacrament, hold a Church position, exercise the priesthood,
or enter the temple. Thus, informal discipline allows a bishop to
punish a member without holding a "disciplinary council" (a church
court). According to church policies, a bishop can apply informal
discipline to a person who confesses voluntarily, who commits the
fault for the first time, who has not violated temple covenants,
and whose situation has significant mitigating circumstances.
In the case of gays and lesbians, informal discipline works only
for those who are willing to abandon their homosexuality. Through
a program of frequent interviews, the bishop could attempt to control
the most personal and intimate aspects of your daily life. He may
ask you if you masturbate, if you have sexual fantasies, or if you
are sexually active. He may suggest or require that you participate
in some "ex-gay" group such as Evergreen.
More dangerously, he may suggest or require that you undergo some
form of so-called "reparative" or "conversion"
therapy. Some bishops will even offer to pay for this therapy.
We strongly caution you to think twice before submitting to any
form of therapy that claims that homosexuality is a psychological
disorder. The American Psychological Association insists in no uncertain
terms: "The reality is that homosexuality is not an illness. It
does not require treatment and is not changeable" ("Answers to Your
Questions About Sexual Orientation and Homosexuality," APA Public
Interest Fact Sheet, July 1998). We caution you against so-called
"therapies" that may harm your social, emotional, and spiritual
well-being. We also caution you against groups that claim that homosexuality
is a sin that must be abandoned. Affirmation agrees with the APA,
and other mainstream mental health organizations, that health and
wellness are possible for gay and lesbian people if they accept
themselves for who they are.
Church leaders are instructed to make a distinction between merely
feeling same-sex attraction and acting upon those feelings. They
cannot convene a court merely because you are attracted to people
of your own gender. If your bishop knows that you merely have same-sex
feelings, he is likely to handle the situation through personal
interviews with you (informal discipline). But if you have received
your temple endowments and are sexually active with someone to whom
you are not married, your behavior is considered a serious transgression
and subject to stern discipline. This usually means excommunication.
Whereas informal discipline is administered by the bishop alone,
formal discipline is administered by church courts known as disciplinary
councils. Cases involving women and Aaronic Priesthood holders
are usually handled by ward disciplinary councils convened and presided
over by a bishop. Cases involving Melchizedek Priesthood holders
are usually handled by a stake disciplinary council convened and
presided over by a stake president. Ward councils are composed of
a bishop and his counselors. Stake councils are composed of a stake
president, his two counselors, and the members of the high council.
Many situations can trigger a disciplinary council, including
an accusation that someone makes against you, an investigation conducted
by your bishop or stake president, or your own disclosure. In contrast
to past Mormon practice, information you disclose in an ecclesiastical
interview cannot be used as evidence in a disciplinary council without
your consent. However, if you make a disclosure, the leaders can
still convene a disciplinary council against you on the basis of
other evidence. In all decisions concerning church discipline, the
leaders are supposed to take into consideration a number of factors,
including whether or not the member has been through the temple,
the member's position in the Church, and the member's age, maturity,
Preparation for a Disciplinary
If a Church leader convenes a disciplinary council against you,
you will receive a written notice that includes the date, time,
and place where the council will be held. The letter must be delivered
personally and privately, with courtesy and dignity. If they cannot
deliver it in person, they may send it by registered or certified
mail, with a return receipt requested. In the letter, the charge
against you will be set forth in very general terms, without including
any details or evidence.
If you are interested in attending the council but have a schedule
conflict, let the leaders know; they may be willing to reschedule.
If you object to the participation of a counselor in the bishopric
or stake presidency, the presiding officer must evaluate your objection.
If you object to the participation of the bishop, the matter must
be referred to the stake president. If you object to the participation
of the stake president, he must consult the Office of the First
You may prepare yourself for the disciplinary council by writing
a statement or response, by gathering any relevant evidence, and
by summoning your own witnesses. If your witnesses are not Church
members, the presiding officer must determine in advance that the
nonmember witnesses will respect the purposes and procedures of
The Mechanics of the
The meeting begins without you present. The presiding officer tells
the council what the charges are. You are then invited into the
meeting and introduced. The council is opened with a prayer. Then
the presiding officer, or someone designated by him, states the
charges and asks you to respond by admitting or denying them. If
you deny the charges, they will present the evidence, including
written or oral statements of witnesses, reliable documents, and,
if you have given your consent for it, the substance of your own
disclosure. If they bring witnesses, you have the right to question
them. Any member of the council may ask you or the witnesses questions,
but they must be brief, relevant, and polite.
You then present your response. You may bring in witnesses, one
at a time, submit other relevant evidence, comment on the evidence,
and make any other statement you want. If you are sexually active
and admit it from the beginning, the disciplinary council can be
over in a few minutes.
You also have the right to refuse to answer certain questions.
Most of us in Affirmation are willing to state that we are indeed
gay or lesbian. However, many of us also believe that sexuality
is a sacred, personal, and private matter. Therefore we do not deem
it appropriate for the council to ask us about our sexual lives,
just as council members would not deem it appropriate for us to
ask them about theirs.
When all relevant matters have been presented, you are asked to
leave the room. Then the presiding officer, his counselors, and
the high council deliberate over what action to take. They may reach
a decision at that time or adjourn the council temporarily to seek
additional evidence. If you declare that you are a practicing homosexual
and have no intention of changing, they will most likely reach a
decision right away.
There are four actions the council might take: (1) no action,
(2) formal probation, (3) disfellowshipment, or (4) excommunication.
If they decide to put you on formal probation or to disfellowship
you, they will restrict some or all your privileges as a member
of the Church, but these are intended to be temporary actions. As
part of the action, they may instruct you to break contact with
all your gay and lesbian friends or undergo so-called
"therapy." If they excommunicate you, that means that they see
your actions as a serious "transgression" and/or they don't think that
you are likely to change.
After reaching the decision, the presiding officer will invite
you back into the council meeting and inform you of the decision.
The officer will explain the terms and conditions imposed. If these
include the withdrawal of your temple privileges (as in probation,
disfellowshipment, or excommunication), he will ask you to return
your temple recommend. They will explain your right to appeal, and
then they will close the meeting with a prayer. They will also send
you a letter with all this information.
If you think that the evidence was unfair or that the council
was biased, you may appeal the decision. You should present your
appeal within thirty days to the presiding officer of the council
that made the decision. An appeal of a ward council is addressed
to the stake presidency. An appeal of a stake council is addressed
to the First Presidency. They will read your appeal and send you
their decision, but only rarely in the history of the Church has
a stake council decision been reversed.
Remember: A bishop can start a disciplinary process against you
even if you haven't consented that he use your disclosure. A bishop
who learns about a transgression involving someone outside his ward
must contact the corresponding bishop. Bishops routinely report
on the "progress" of disciplined members to the stake, or, if you
move, they might give a report to your new bishop. Sometimes a bishop
may consider it beneficial to inform your family of the disciplinary
action. This means that disciplinary actions, albeit supposedly
confidential, may involve many people.
What Excommunication Means
Even though many members think that excommunication is a terrible
thing, Mormon leaders and LDS publications are extremely vague when
describing the spiritual consequences of excommunication. The reason
is very simple: Excommunication is not a spiritual matter, but an
administrative procedure. Your soul is not on trial--only your membership
in the temporal Church.
In practice, excommunication means only that your membership on
the Church records has been suspended. The Church doesn't even erase
or destroy your membership record! It is interesting to note that
when an excommunicated person goes back to the church, all the blessings
are restored. The dates of the original baptism and temple
ordinances are written in their record. What this really means is
that they never took the ordinances away in the first place.
They merely took away temporarily the Church's recognition of these ordinances.
The truth of the matter is that no one on earth can take away
your baptism, your endowments, or if applicable, your priesthood.
No one can take away your faith or your testimony. Most importantly,
no one can take away your spirituality. The Spirit never withdraws
from those who sincerely seek to do good. Your integrity, your morality,
and your spirituality remain intact.
If the day comes when you are summoned to attend a disciplinary
council, we encourage you to consider attending. If you attend your
tribunal and bear your testimony as a gay son or lesbian daughter
of God, you will be making a powerful statement that they cannot
ignore. Go to the council and let those men hear what you know.
You may not learn anything from them, but they may learn something
from you. Let them see that you are not intimidated. Let them see
that they cannot hurt you. Be a witness to your own integrity and
a witness against their actions. If you touch only one person by
being honest, then your attendance is invaluable.
A Final Word
Disciplinary councils can be an insidious system of control, manipulation,
and abuse. We believe that they are contrary to the teachings of
Jesus. But we also believe that every person who is excommunicated
can find the way to transform a potentially painful experience into
something positive, empowering, and uplifting.
With a few exceptions, excommunication does not prevent you from
continuing to do the basic things that are at the heart of Mormonism.
You can still attend Church meetings and conferences. You can still
search the scriptures and feast on the words of Christ. You can
still have family home evenings and work on family history. You
can still be an example of integrity and find ways to serve your
neighbor. Most importantly, you can still pray, fast, and keep in
tune with the things of the Spirit.
We testify to you that no earthly court can take away your potential
as a child of God. No Church leader can judge your life. No administrative
procedure can condemn your soul. In the words of Nephi, "the keeper
of the gate is the Holy One of Israel; and he employeth no servant
there" (2 Nephi 9:41).
God bless you. Above all, remember that our Heavenly Parents love
you. They want you to live in joy. They will always accept you the
way you are.
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