What are the reasons for the church taking disciplinary action, or even excommunicating a member?

A 1990 article offered on the church's Web site lists the following reasons for convening a disciplinary council: "… abortion, transsexual operation, attempted murder, rape, forcible sexual abuse, intentionally inflicting serious physical injuries on others, adultery, fornication, homosexual relations, child abuse (sexual or physical), spouse abuse, deliberate abandonment of family responsibilities, robbery, burglary, theft, sale of illegal drugs, fraud, perjury, or false swearing."

In addition, "disciplinary councils must be held in cases of murder, incest or apostasy." Apostasy is defined by the church's General Handbook of Instructions as teaching or following incorrect doctrines or "repeatedly act[ing] in clear, open and deliberate public opposition to the church or its leaders."

Excommunication is the most severe punishment that a church disciplinary council can hand down against a member. Disfellowshipment is a punishment just short of excommunication in which a member remains part of the church but may not enter the temple, hold leadership roles, receive sacraments or perform priestly duties. Lesser disciplinary actions are private caution and informal or formal probation.

Excommunication results in a member's name being removed from the church records and disfellowshipment; an excommunicated member may not wear temple undergarments or tithe to the church, and the member's temple sealings to spouse and children are suspended.

Excommunicated members may rejoin the church after repenting and undergoing re-baptism.

Is excommunication common?

It's difficult to determine because the church doesn't announce or comment on excommunications publicly "unless the transgression is widely known." Perhaps for this reason, while excommunications for immoral behavior are far and away more common than excommunications for apostasy, the latter are more public because the person being disciplined for apostasy is generally well known in the LDS community.

How has the church dealt with dissent and those who challenge church doctrine or don't follow its teachings?

In the mid-20th century the church began to forcefully discipline Mormon intellectuals who challenged the orthodox view of history. The historian Fawn McKay Brodie came from a devout Mormon family in Utah -- her uncle would become the church president in 1950. In 1945 she published No Man Knows My History, a biography of Joseph Smith that was the first modern biography of the prophet to challenge the divine origins of Smith's revelations and the Book of Mormon. Her family connections notwithstanding, she was promptly excommunicated. In addition, Hugh Nibley, a Brigham Young University professor, wrote an answer to Ms. Brodie's book called No Ma'am That's Not History. It is not clear whether Nibley's work was a church assignment, but his attack was published by a Mormon publisher.

In 1950, when Juanita Brooks published the first full account of Mormon complicity in the Mountain Meadows Massacre, she and her husband were shunned by members of their church. She, however, remained active in the church and was never excommunicated.

An official church historian, Leonard Arrington, began opening church archives in 1972 and promoted a "new Mormon history" that was complex and objective. But after a decade of intellectual freedom, the church transferred the history division to Brigham Young University and turned it into the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Church History. Arrington remained at the helm of the institute until he retired, but he was essentially the director in name only.

The most well known example of church discipline of intellectuals came in 1993, when the church excommunicated five Mormon scholars and disfellowshipped another for separately publishing articles that troubled church leaders because they raised questions about church doctrine and history. One member of the so-called "September Six" was D. Michael Quinn, an openly gay Mormon historian, who researched the continued practice of polygamy by some church leaders after it had been banned by the 1890 Manifesto.

In an interview, Quinn says that contrary to church policy, which dictates that disciplinary councils be handled at the "stake" level, a representative of the national hierarchy intervened in his case and ordered him excommunicated. Lavina Anderson, another of the September Six, who published in and edited the free-thinking Mormon publications Dialogue and Sunstone, accused church leaders of keeping tabs on Mormon scholars, a practice the church later confirmed. Journalists Richard and Joan Ostling write in their book Mormon America, "No other sizable religion in America monitors its followers in this way."

What is the church's stance on polygamy and modern-day groups who practice it?

In 1998, LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley said this about the church's attitude toward modern-day polygamy:

"This church has nothing whatever to do with those practicing polygamy. They are not members of this church. ... If any of our members are found to be practicing plural marriage, they are excommunicated, the most serious penalty the church can impose. Not only are those so involved in direct violation of the civil law, they are in violation of the law of this church."

The official prohibition against polygamy dates back to 1890 and a "manifesto" by LDS President Wilford Woodruff, in which he advised members "to refrain from contracting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land." But some church members questioned the document's provenance; some interpreted it to apply only to marriages performed in the United States; and some high church officials continued the practice.

In 1904, LDS President Joseph F. Smith issued the "Second Manifesto," declaring that any church member continuing to practice polygamy would be excommunicated. Smith carried through on the threat by excommunicating two members of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

Despite the prohibition and an active crackdown on the practice by the LDS Church itself, splinter groups considering themselves "fundamentalist" Mormons have continued to practice polygamy. In 1953, state authorities raided the polygamist community of Short Creek, Ariz., a move that backfired and resulted in an outpouring of support for the fundamentalists.

Today, the public face of polygamy is often that of its most extreme adherents like Warren Jeffs, who was the absolute ruler of an isolated community of Mormon fundamentalists. He recently pleaded not guilty to charges he was an accomplice to rape for arranging the marriage of a 14-year-old girl to an older man.

Are polygamists Mormon?

The Mormon church does not consider members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) -- the most widely-known modern group that continues to practice plural marriage -- or any other polygamist sect to be Mormons, and practicing polygamy is grounds for excommunication.

Nearly all of the polygamist groups in the intermountain west are technically schismatic Mormon groups. They accept the Book of Mormon as scripture and embrace LDS doctrines, mainly differing from the church headquartered in Salt Lake City over the issue of whether the manifesto that proscribed plural marriage was a revelation and over who ought to be presiding over the church.

Why did the Mormon church, for more than a century, refuse to ordain blacks to the priesthood?

From 1849 until 1978, blacks could join the church but weren't allowed to be ordained to the priesthood. In the Mormon faith, being ordained to the priesthood is similar to a bar mitzvah, a more or less universal rite of passage that every Mormon male undergoes. Priesthood authority allows Mormon men to perform sacraments, give blessings, go on missions, hold office in the church hierarchy and seal couples in marriage. Women have never been allowed to hold the priesthood.

Several reasons were given for the 130-year ban. The early rationale was that blacks were descended from the Old Testament figure Cain, whose skin was darkened after he murdered his brother Abel. (This reasoning was also used by other Christian churches to justify their exclusion of blacks.) Brigham Young in 1852 stated, "[A]ny man having one drop of the seed of [Cain] ... in him cannot hold the priesthood and if no other prophet ever spake it before I will say it now in the name of Jesus Christ I know it is true and others know it."

But according to Mormon historian Lester Bush, it appears Joseph Smith had allowed blacks to be priests; during Smith's time, the church had some black members and at least two black priests.

Another rationale, offered by some Mormons as far back as the 1840s, is that the souls which inhabit black bodies had been neutral or even sympathetic to Lucifer during the War of Heaven. The Mormon Church's first official statement on the matter, issued in 1949, alluded to this theory, stating that "the conduct of spirits in the premortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality," and that therefore "there is no injustice whatsoever involved in this deprivation as to the holding of the priesthood by the Negroes."

Change came in the 1970s: Not only were Mormons' ambitions to be a worldwide church growing, but black Africans were imploring the church to send missionaries so that they could be baptized. All of this weighed on the church's new president, Spencer Kimball. On June 1, 1978, President Kimball, his two counselors and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, met at the Salt Lake City temple, engaged in group prayer, and had what was described as a Pentecostal experience.

President Kimball announced that God had heard their prayers and had revealed "that all male members of the church may be ordained to the priesthood without regard to race or color."