Correlation and the Preference for Bright-Line Rules

One of the Church’s greatest problems of the 20th century was its substantial growth. We went from being a small, peculiar sect hunkered down in the Great Basin to becoming a world-wide church, far-flung with different cultures and languages, and we did it very quickly. The Church’s overarching response to that problem was Correlation. Largely independent auxiliaries were streamlined under priesthood lines, things were simplified, extraneous things were jettisoned. We sometimes lament the things we have lost with Correlation, but at this late date there is simply no turning back the clock, it is a fait accompli.

Largely for the desire for simplicity and predictability that has come with the impulse of the Correlation movement, the Church has shown a certain penchant for favoring bright-line rules. A bright-line rule is a rule where you establish a simple standard that applies to everyone irrespective of individual circumstances or factors. For instance, we hope that a person who becomes president of the United States will possess a certain maturity, so we have established a rule that to become president one must be at least 35 years old. Is that perfect? No. Undoubtedly there are younger Americans that would bring a greater gravitas to the role than many older Americans, as our presidential debates might seem to suggest. But trying to apply some more meaningful standard of maturity would be very difficult and probably not worth the muss and bother that would come with it. Or consider voting laws; those are largely bright-line rules. If you are over X years of age and are domiciled in Y county and have no felony convictions, etc., then yes, you may vote. Voting is a logistical nightmare already; imagine if we were to try to vet potential voters more individually somehow.

But while bright-line rules have the advantage of simplicity and certainty and ease of administration, they also have the potential to lead to inequitable results, because by their very nature they do not take individual circumstances into account. So those values of simplicity v. equity are constantly at play when deciding whether to enact a bright-line rule.

The Church’s handbooks and policies are filled with bright-line rules.

For instance I remember eight years ago when I was stunned to learn that if a CES employee gets divorced, he is summarily fired, no questions asked. The circumstances of the divorce didn’t matter; the mere fact of the divorce triggered the policy, and you were to clean out your desk post haste. I blogged about my dismay over the injustice this policy could result in here.

The recent amendments to Handbook 1 are a set of bright-line rules, the claimed[1] rationale for which is to prevent the children of gay parents from suffering from a sense of cognitive dissonance over the difference between Church standards and the reality of a parent’s relationship. And I can imagine situations where those policies would in fact be very much appreciated by a gay parent. A parent who despised the Church and didn’t want his or her child to join the Church would, I suppose, appreciate having this leverage over a former spouse who was a member and very much wanted his or her child to be raised as a member of the faith. In that scenario the believing parent’s desires wouldn’t matter and would be trumped by the policy. And I don’t profess to know, but maybe that would be a good result in that particular case. Maybe we shouldn’t be baptizing that child against the strongly expressed wishes of a parent.

It seems to me, however, that that type of a case is an outlier. The much more common scenario is something like this: gay young man, grows up in the faith, loves the Church, serves a mission, in desperation marries a heterosexual LDS woman in a mixed orientation marriage (a “MOM”) in a desperate attempt to live the gospel, they have children, but the marriage is simply untenable and they (often amicably) divorce, after which the former husband at some point enters into a gay relationship. In this more common scenario, both parents very much want their child to be raised in the Church. and yet, because the policy as drafted is a bright-line rule, that cannot happen. Therefore, in the vast majority of cases, instead of being a support to the gay parent the result will actually be an inequitable one that neither of the parents wants.

The alternative to a bright-line rule would be a balancing test of some sort perhaps, or a set of standards with local discretion. And we are also very experienced at giving local leaders discretion in order to take account of particular circumstances. So, for instance, a stake president or a bishop could determine that the parents (both gay and straight) had no objections to the child being raised in the Church, could provide some sort of written documentation to that effect in the membership file, and then could authorize the child’s full participation in blessings, ordinances and ordinations without restriction.

It has been rumored that the PTB are looking into revising the proposed rule in some way given the massive uproar of disapproval it has received. Simply scuttling the rule altogether would be my preference and might be the simplest and most effective course, but I suspect that as a face-saving gesture they will want to keep some sort of a rule in place. But given the myriad land mines with this rule as drafted, it would be almost impossibile to simply amend the rule and resolve all the problems if they insist on keeping it as a bright-line standard. I believe their best shot at amending the rule in a way that the membership will accept would be to avoid framing it as a bright-line rule where there is no discretion whatosoever for particular circumstances.

[1] I personally suspect that this is actually a post hoc rationalization, but let’s assume it’s authentic for the sake of discussion.


  1. Clark Goble says:

    This seems right. I think there is a reason for the Church doing this. When they don’t make bright line rules and leave things up to local discretion it seems like you have just as many if not more problems.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Local discretion isn’t always a beach party, as you can end up with the common “leadership roulette” problem. But if the Church is hellbent on keeping some kind of a rule on the books, it seems to me that Julie’s post makes a prima facie case for it not being a bright-line rule and providing for some sort of discretion to deal with widely varying cirucmstances:

  3. Clark Goble says:

    It seems like the way the church is moving is to discretion coming from the Bishop talking to the SP who contacts SLC. At least in ideal. This policy is odd in that they are basically giving a bright line as to how SLC will respond.

  4. To complicate matters, the Handbook is rarely, if ever, treated as a set of bright line rules, and the leaders who read and use it are generally not very good at statutory interpretation even if they think they are treating it as bright line rules. For example, if local leaders actually held all the disciplinary councils that the Handbook says are mandatory, a lot of those local leaders would have time for little else. Where the policies do not grant discretion, leaders nearly always exercise it anyway. But just try explaining that in a press conference.

  5. What ordinances, blessings, and ordinations can be performed for a minor when one parent with at least partial custody objects?

  6. Kevin,

    I think I disagree. What exactly would the bishop’s discretion entail? Surely it’s not discretion to allow a child to be baptized against the wishes of one parent. And for situations where the parents agree, do we really want bishop’s to have a veto? What factors would be considered? Wouldn’t this result in bishop roulette? Couldn’t the family just move boundaries and get a different answer? You see the problems.

    I think the best ‘clarification’ would be for the policy to apply only to situations where a child is currently being raised exclusively by a SS couple (or perhaps replace ‘exclusively’ with ‘primarily’). I’m not entirely happy with that result, but it would affect far, far, fewer children, while allowing the brethren an out by not completely backing off.

  7. “It has been rumored that the PTB are looking into revising the proposed rule in some way given the massive uproar of disapproval it has received.”

    Do you mind sharing where you heard this rumor? I’ve been hoping, of course, but the church generally responds to push back with push back, so I’ve expected nothing less in this case.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Elle, the rumor is all over Mormon social media, but I can’t handicap how likely it is to be true.

    As I indicated, my preference would be to scuttle the “rule” altogether. But if they refuse to do that, allowing discretion to me is better than allowing none. My preference for how to approach it would be as indicated in the example I gave, that if both parents give their permission then the child can be raised in the Church. If we’re really talking about the best interests of the child, then in what universe is a bright-line bureaucratic policy of the Church a better standard than the wishes of the child’s own parents?

  9. Dave K., based on several comments I’ve seen on Jana Riess’s blog and Ardis’s recent post on this subject, I actually rather strongly believe that your ‘clarification’ is actually the original intent. Multiple people have reported that their bishops or stake presidents have contacted Salt Lake and been told that this policy was not intended to apply whatsoever to a joint-custody situation. Of course, that leaves us with a policy that doesn’t clearly communicate that intent (at all, honestly), but I still think that that’s a better place then where we were before.

  10. Clark Goble says:

    Added to this is that the statute here seems pretty poorly written. (In one place it says past cohabitation while in an other only current) People are very apt to interpret it in very different ways unless the church clarifies things. I can easily see some Bishops extending this in very undesirable ways. Certainly at a minimum I can see some Bishops thinking this applies to children of anyone who had ever been in an homosexual relationship and others thinking it only applies to children living in the home of a married gay couple.

  11. The polygamist policy has been largely unknown because it is unenforced. “Are you the child of a polygamist?” is not among the questions that district leaders ask baptismal candidates.

    Few things require church discipline. Murder, sexual & physical abuse of a child. Now we add homosexual cohabitation.

    The explanation that it is to protect the children of gays does not add up. To exclude gays as much as possible. That seems to be what church leaders were going for.

  12. “Teach them correct principles, and let them govern themselves.”


  13. Great post. What’s PTB?

  14. Active Believing says:

    My preference would be for Salt Lake to announce that they are putting the policy changes on hold, pending further review and discussion. And then have them quietly disappear.

  15. “And I can imagine situations where those policies would in fact be very much appreciated by a gay parent. A parent who despised the Church and didn’t want his or her child to join the Church would, I suppose, appreciate having this leverage over a former spouse who was a member and very much wanted his or her child to be raised as a member of the faith.”

    Except the handbook already addresses this issue in requiring permission from the custodial parent(s) or guardian(s).

  16. Kevin Barney says:

    PTB = Powers That Be.

  17. Kevin Barney says:

    Part of the problem here ithat I’m assuming arguendo that the claimed rationale is indeed the *real* rationale, but I don’t actually believe that is the case.

  18. Excellent write up Kevin. First question for any rule is “bright line” or “balancing test” and in most cases neither is perfect, but one is better than the other. My sense is that the Church too often defaults to bright line rules (but then again it’s not my job to hear about some crazy thing some bishop did and then have to fix it). My opinion is that the Church is attempting to address the one situation you highlight, a parent who really does not want their child to be baptized (or perhaps one who might consent without understanding the implications and who is later quite upset). I think the Church hopes to address that situation and in particular wants to put a liability shield in place. Unfortunately, the drafters (lawyers?) of the policy managed to sweep in the MOM situation you identify, the situations Julie Smith is describing, and a bunch of other situations. If we can get to a “balancing test with discretion” policy that’s meant to address only the situation Elder C described, i.e. a situation where it really isn’t appropriate because of the level of conflict being created, then I’ll be happy with that. To phrase that a bit differently, I don’t think we should baptize a child over the loud objections of a non-custodial parent. At least for a name and a blessing, that has basically been the policy for a long time: When either of a child’s parents is not a member of the Church, the bishop should obtain verbal permission from both parents before the child is blessed. He explains that a membership record will be prepared for the child after the blessing. He should also tell them (1) that ward members will contact them periodically and (2) that when the child reaches age 8, the bishop or the ward missionaries will visit them and propose that the child be baptized.

  19. Understand the preference for a discretionary rule. But I wonder if it isn’t too late. A change to a different set of bright lines might work. A change to discretion is likely to leave us with massive leadership roulette where some large number of leaders will revert to the bright lines.

  20. I think the intent of the policy change can be understood in Elder Christofferson’s explanation which was to protect a child with a homosexual parent from the dissonance caused by the competing messages at home and at church. Curiously, prohibiting baby blessings, baptisms, ordination, etc. is not what protects the child from this dissonance. Ultimately, what protects the child from this dissonance is eliminating one of the messages. And in this case, the objective of this policy change is to eliminate the messages that they would receive at church. While they did not come out and say it expressly, the intent of the policy change was to make the environment so toxic for a child with a homosexual parent ( and their sympathizers) that they self-select out of participation. It is despicable but very effective.

  21. You’re not the only one who thinks the “this is for the children” explanation was pulled out of their… pockets.

    They never expected this to be leaked to the general public; I wonder if this will lead to a change in how HB1 is accessed and distributed. (Just put the whole thing online, already!)

  22. Tejasdad, my children were exposed to considerable dissonance in my home when they were growing up since they often heard me speak out against certain teachings from the pulpit, to wit:

    • The bizarre notion that our leaders are incapable of leading us astray.
    • The assertion in the B of M that no life existed on earth before Adam and Eve.
    • That the Book of Abraham is not a literal translation of Egyptian papyri.
    • That Genesis provides a literal description of the manner in which the earth was created (yes, 30 years ago, when my children were young, this is what was taught).
    • That the Church has been something less than honest in its portrayal of its history and the evolution of its doctrines.

    I could go on, but I think you get the picture.

    My children managed to cope just find. They accepted some of my “heresies,” but declined to embrace others. And they seem to be better off for having been forced to wrestle with these and other questions. Why do you think that the children in a same-sex household are incapable of doing likewise? No, I’m sorry, Elder Christofferson’s explanation is not persuasive.

  23. Clark Goble says:

    Someone, in areas with polygamists it’s often known who is or isn’t a polygamist. Of course people can lie on the issue but I doubt most Bishops always know whose kids have parents in homosexual relationships unless it’s come up for other reasons.

  24. Farside, thank you for your response. I think you misunderstood the intent of my post. I too have managed for myself and my children the dissonance caused by the messages you list. I agree with you that a child of a homosexual parent could manage the dissonance caused by the competing messages at home and at church. My point is if you follow Elder Christofferson’s argument to its logical conclusion, it’s not that they don’t want to give those children baby blessings, baptism, ordination etc.,it’s that they don’t want them (and their sympathizers – me and my family for example) at church in the first place.

    We are polluting there well!

  25. Tejasdad, you know, after I posted my response, I went back and re-read your post and was left with the question of whether I had misunderstood what you had written. I obviously did. My apologies. And I agree with your point entirely.

    During General Conference, a couple of General Authorities went out of their way to acknowledge that church leaders are human, that they sometimes make mistakes. For some reason, it appears they felt compelled to prove their point in colossal fashion.

  26. The intro to the Handbook used to remind those for whom it was written that while the Church expected them to read it and use it and follow it, it did not trump personal revelation in their specific callings (paraphrased, and 10+ year old memory).

    Local church leaders have always and continue to have the right to personal revelation in carrying out their duties. Are we really saying that we no longer (or never did) trust bishops to seek and have such revelation? Or that we think there is no such thing, despite what the Handbook prologue said? IME, bishops have regularly “violated” the handbook in a myriad of ways, and with impunity. (Sometimes when I didn’t think they should, and when they made to claim to superceding revelation.) And bishops have asked for and received First Presidency approval for policies changes that cannot be altered without that.

    Wouldn’t we all better serve our friends who struggle with the new handbook directions by praying and fasting for leaders and for affected members so that all will recognize the Lord’s will in each specific instance?

  27. rnpchacha, you are correct:

    “The Lord admonished, “Let every man learn his duty, and to act in the office in which he is appointed, in all diligence” (D&C 107:99).

    Church leaders seek personal revelation to help them learn and fulfill the duties of their callings.

    Studying the scriptures and the teachings of latter-day prophets will help leaders understand and fulfill their duties. The Lord has admonished leaders to treasure up in their minds continually the words of God so they will be receptive to the influence of the Spirit (see D&C 84:85).

    Leaders also learn their duties by studying the instructions in Church handbooks. These instructions can facilitate revelation if they are used to provide an understanding of principles, policies, and procedures to apply while seeking the guidance of the Spirit.”

    Of course there is a lot of leader roulette with respect to how different leaders use this language. It does seem like most leaders don’t use much discretion in cases where the handbook says things “must” or “may not”. One of the interesting aspects of this is that the intro makes it sound like the entire handbook is a balancing test even though its full of what appear to be bright line rules (sentences with words like “must” and “may not” in them).

    I also remember sitting in a worldwide leadership meeting a few years where 95% of the meeting was “we want you to actually read and follow the handbook” and the last 5 minutes was Pres. Packer saying “do whatever the Spirit tells you to do”.

  28. In our ward, roughly 5-10% of the members are Spanish speaking of questionable legal status. Yet we have no qualms whatsoever baptizing them (or their children), issuing temple recommends, and even sending them on missions when there are ways of circumventing the law. I’ve heard the rationale for that as being a civil disobedience thing. Why aren’t there policies to protect that particular subset of children from the paradox of the church teaching that we follow the law, full well knowing that their parents are not?

    I am not bringing this up to discuss immigration, but as a question as to how far the “protection” line of thinking extends.

  29. Brent Metcalfe says:

    So much for Kevin’s “bright-line rule”— today’s FP and PR “clarification” doubles down on the policy and *clarifies* just how capricious the implementation of this draconian policy will be. Decisions with eternal consequences are now left in the hands of a part-time, volunteer, lay clergy who will inevitably apply their own idiosyncratic beliefs to each situation. Children who are “safe” in one ward run the risk of having their worlds turned upside down if a parent moves to another ward.

  30. Clark Goble says:

    I took today’s clarifications as offering a fair bit of discretion and thus moving away from a right line rule.

  31. I’ve read a couple of the author’s articles now (and his Wikipedia entry) and must say that I don’t like his tone. Sure, he’s a smart guy–there’s plenty of those around. Yet he seems “hellbent” on proving how smart he is whilst trifling with sacred matters. Just another reason why law has long been a marked profession. Does his arm get sore, what with all that patting himself on the back for his brilliance? –Not A Fan

  32. Excuse me, Clark, but your prejudice is showing. Rather than being ‘trifling’, it is worthwhile considering the intended goal of a rule, and whether the rule is effective in achieving that goal. In this case, there appears to be a discrepancy between the stated motivation and the end result. Asking people to accept such a rule ‘as is’ could, ironically, lead to cognitive dissonance.