Five More LDS Church Discipline Policies That Affect Women Unequally
The fact that Mormon women are subject to a disciplinary system in which only men may call disciplinary councils, staff the councils, and judge their outcomes is more than enough to raise suspicion about the justice of this system for women. (See this post for more about that: Church Discipline: Women Disciplined by Men.) However, here are five other church disciplinary policies that have concerning implications for women.
1. A bishop may not excommunicate a man but he may excommunicate a woman.* If a man is summoned to a disciplinary council at the bishop’s level, he may be reassured that excommunication will not be on the table. A woman has no such reassurance.
2. It takes 15 individuals to excommunicate a man, while only four are required to excommunicate a woman.* There may be advantages for women who are excommunicated in Bishopric councils as opposed to Stake councils. Testifying before four men who are members of your own ward may be less intimidating than testifying before 15 men, at least some of whom are strangers, and the risk of confidentiality breach naturally increases with the number of people involved in the process. However, smaller groups have their own risks. Personal biases are less likely to be balanced among small numbers and deviations from protocol have fewer witnesses. In either case, the final decision is made by one person alone instead of by consensus, but the stake president’s decision is informed by a larger number of opinions than a bishop’s.
Since women are excommunicated in a different venue than men, among different players and with different procedures, the outcomes will be different for men and women. Differential treatment does not yield the same results. Regardless of whether the different outcome is better or worse for women compared to men, the fact that it requires over three times as many human resources to end the membership of a man as opposed to a woman, and that a man may not be excommunicated at such low levels of church governance as a woman, suggests that a man’s membership is more valuable than a woman’s and that the church is more cautious about terminating a male membership.
3. Church policy lends itself to stricter discipline for women who become pregnant than for men who commit the same sins. Disciplinary councils are optional for many transgressions including adultery and fornication but become mandatory if the transgression is “widely known.” A transgression resulting in pregnancy is widely known—but only for the female transgressor. If a man’s paternity is not “widely known,” discipline is optional. The “widely known” clause lends itself to situations like this one:
There was a pregnant girl in my Laurel class…The father was passing the sacrament while she wasn’t allowed to partake of it. Reference 1
4. Only men may read policies and procedures pertaining to church discipline, including the rights of the accused. These policies are found in the Church Handbook of Instruction, Volume 1. Access to this volume is restricted. Not all men may read these policies either, but many men have the opportunity at some point in their lives to serve in local callings where they are given access to this manual. They may even gain additional insight into the process of church discipline by staffing church disciplinary councils. With the exception of the nine female General Auxiliary Leaders, no women are authorized to read the policies and procedures by which they may be disciplined. Reference 2
5. Single women may be disciplined for artificial insemination, although artificial insemination while single is not a sin. A search of LDS.org found no conference talks, official statements, curricula or any mention at all of artificial insemination except for a provision in the Church Handbook of Instruction Volume 2 that subjects single women who are inseminated to church discipline. So, apparently, we are not teaching that this action is a sin. The rationale for holding disciplinary councils listed in the policy manual all relate to facilitating repentance or protecting victims of transgression; they do not apply to an action that has not been described as a transgression. Why would a woman be subjected to a disciplinary council when she has not committed a sin? If punishing nontraditional choices is a valid reason to hold a disciplinary council, why is there no explanation of this in the rationale?
While insemination of a single woman is the only form of medically assisted reproduction that has a threat of discipline attached to it in church policy manuals, many others are noted as “strongly discouraged” and some local leaders insert themselves into these personal health decisions with the threat of discipline. Here are two examples:
I’ve been told by my stake president via my bishop that if I pursue being a gestational carrier that there will be disciplinary action because of the rules regarding insemination. I explained the difference between a traditional surrogate and a gestational carrier but it hasn’t made a difference. Reference 3
The woman who was our surrogate was required by her bishop to write a letter of permission to the First Presidency. She had to lay out details about me, which made me uncomfortable, and how and if the spirit was directing her to do this. Her husband had to also write a letter giving his permission for her to be a surrogate, so long as the First Presidency approved. The letters were written and given to the bishop, for him to make notes, then sent to the Stake President. The Stake President also read the letters, added his notes and forwarded to the First Presidency. With all of this documentation, they had a verbal approval from the First Presidency- akin to “If the Bishop is okay with it, then we won’t challenge his (his) inspiration.” This was not for me, per se, but my reproductive history was required by a bishop to be a part of the whole thing, meaning there are strangers that are not scientists or doctors who know very intimate information about me and judged *my friend* on that information.
*The policy forbidding bishops from excommunicating men specifically refer to men with Melchizedek priesthood. Virtually all men who have been active LDS church members for any portion of their adult lives are ordained to the Melchizedek priesthood. All women are banned from the Melchizedek priesthood. Hence, with a few exceptions, this policy discriminates solely on the basis of sex.