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In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), a disciplinary council is an ecclesiastical trial during which a member of the church is tried for alleged violations of church standards. If a member of the Church is found guilty of an offence by a disciplinary council, he or she may be excommunicated or their church membership may be otherwise restricted. Disciplinary councils are also referred to unofficially as church courts.
According to official Church manuals, the purposes of its disciplinary councils are to:
- save the souls of the transgressors;
- protect the innocent; and
- safeguard the purity, integrity, and good name of the Church.
Most disciplinary councils are convened by a bishop of a ward. In such an instance, the council is composed of the bishop and his two counselors. The ward clerk will also be present to take notes of the proceedings. After hearing all of the evidence in the case, the bishop and his counselors are encouraged to make a joint unanimous decision on the outcome. However, the bishop has the final say and can theoretically make a decision over the protest of either or both of his counselors.
A stake disciplinary council is convened by the stake president in instances where it appears that a holder of the Melchizedek priesthood has committed an offence which may result in excommunication or when the subject is a member of a bishop's immediate family. In such instances, the council is composed of the stake president, his two counselors, and the twelve members of the stake high council. After hearing the evidence in the case and the submissions of the high councilors--one half of whom speak on behalf of the accused--the stake president and his counselors are encouraged to make a joint unanimous decision on the outcome. However, the stake president has the final say and can theoretically make a decision over the protest of either or both of his counselors.
A mission president can convene a disciplinary council to try a full-time missionary in his mission or a member in a district of his mission. He can also authorize branch or district presidents in a district to convene disciplinary councils.
If the need arises to convene a disciplinary council for the President of the Church or one of his counselors in the First Presidency, the Common Council of the Church must be convened by the church's presiding bishop. The Common Council is made up of the presiding bishop and his counselors and twelve other high priests selected by the presiding bishop. The Common Council has only been convened twice: In August 1838, after the return of Zion's Camp, the Council formally convened for the first time to consider charges made by Sylvester Smith against Joseph Smith, who was eventually cleared. In September 1844, Presiding Bishop Newel K. Whitney convened a Common Council which excommunicated Sidney Rigdon, who was the senior surviving member of the First Presidency after the death of Joseph Smith.
The council begins by the presiding officer stating the reported misconduct and asking the accused person to admit or deny it. If the person denies the misconduct, the presiding officer or a designate presents the evidence of the misconduct. Evidence may be presented in the form of written or oral statements by witnesses or other documents. An accused person's previous confession cannot be used as evidence in a disciplinary council without the member's consent. The accused member is given a chance to question the witnesses against him or her. After the evidence against the accused is presented, the accused is permitted to present evidence in response. The accused can comment on the evidence and make any other statement he or she wants to make. All witnesses and the accused may also be questioned by any member of the disciplinary council. No witness is placed under oath. Because the disciplinary council is an ecclesiastical court, rules of evidence that govern domestic courts do not apply. The church has instructed leaders that "procedures in a disciplinary council must be fair and considerate of the feelings of all who participate."
If the accused person admits to the conduct in question, no evidence is presented before the council.
Once a decision has been reached by the disciplinary council, the decision is announced to the accused person and the presiding officer explains the conditions that are imposed by the decision. The accused is also informed of his or her right to appeal the decision of the council. The decision of the disciplinary council is not announced in a public church meeting unless the case involves (1) the preaching of false doctrine, (2) a transgressor who is a predator, or (3) "other flagrant transgressions", such as participation in plural marriage, "cultist teachings to attract a following", or ridicule of church leaders.
An accused member may appeal the decision of the disciplinary council within 30 days of the decision being made. Appeals of a ward disciplinary council are made to the stake disciplinary council (i.e. the stake president, his two counselors, and the high council). An appeal of the decision of a stake disciplinary council or a disciplinary council convened by a mission president is to the First Presidency of the church. An appeal of a decision of a disciplinary council convened by a branch president or a district president in a mission is to the mission president. The body hearing the appeal may vary the decision of the council in any way or let the original decision stand.
The proceedings of the disciplinary council are summarized on a Report of Church Disciplinary Action form. This form is sent to the office of the First Presidency where the information it contains is permanently stored. It is also reviewed by the body hearing the appeal if an appeal is made.
The membership record of a member that is disfellowshipped or placed on formal probation is updated to note the status of the member. If the member changes congregations while under church discipline, the membership record will inform the new ward or branch leadership of the disciplinary action. After church discipline has ended the membership record will again be updated to remove notice of the disciplinary action. The membership records provided to ward and branch leaders normally do not contain information regarding past discipline; however, a membership record is annotated when a person has been disciplined for incest, sexual or serious physical abuse of a child, plural marriage, an elective transsexual operation, repeated homosexual activities by adults, embezzlement of church funds or property, or other conduct that, in the church's view, "threatens the well being of other persons or of the Church." Annotations may be removed from a membership record if a stake president makes a request to do so and the First Presidency approves the removal.
Stake presidents are permitted to request records of past discipline of members of their stake from the office of the First Presidency. Bishops may request records of past discipline of members of their ward.
In the case of excommunication, the excommunicated person is removed from church records.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has instructed leaders that a disciplinary council is mandatory when evidence suggests that a member of the church may have committed any of the following offences against the standards of the church:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has instructed leaders that a disciplinary council may be appropriate when evidence suggests that a member of the church may have committed any of the following offences against the standards of the church. Whether or not a disciplinary council will be held will depend on the facts of the situation and is generally left to the discretion of the bishop or stake president.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has instructed leaders that disciplinary councils are not appropriately held to resolve or deal with the following circumstances:
A disciplinary council may reach one of four possible outcomes: