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The LDS Church is not ousting members to silence differences of opinion, an LDS apostle said this week.

LDS feminists, dissidents and scholars recently disciplined by local church authorities contend they are the subject of a purge to kill free expression. But Elder Dallin H. Oaks said that characterization is inaccurate and self-serving."Purge is loaded with meaning and a dirty piece of name-calling," Elder Oaks said in an interview with the Deseret News this week. "It has been put on by people trying to gather a fol-low-ing."

Elder Oaks, a member of the Council of the Twelve of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said taking action against six local members out of 8 million worldwide isn't a purge.

But at least four of the six Mormons disciplined say the church's action sends a different message. "You have to look at who they picked out - high-profile dissidents," said Lynne Whitesides, an avowed feminist in Salt Lake City who was disfellowshipped by her bishop last month.

Five other Utahns - two women and three men - say they were excommunicated by their local church authorities. Their views are varied, but they have been described as so-called church intellectuals. And some say they were sanctioned because they publicly criticized or disagreed with church leadership or doctrine.

The disciplinary action caught the attention of national media, which, to the dismay of church leaders, have also characterized the events as a purge.

"There is no purge of feminists. There is no purge of scholars. There is no purge," Elder Oaks stressed in an interview with National Public Radio.

Elder Oaks said the word purge also implies action was taken at the behest of the church's general authorities, which church critics assert is the case. Many have publicly singled out Elder Boyd K. Packer, also a member of the Council of the Twelve, as the primary influence behind the recent expulsions.

"I deplore that," Elder Oaks said. "It's scapegoating."

A former Utah Supreme Court justice and the church's expert on disciplinary procedures, Elder Oaks said the disciplinary decisions ranging from probation to excommunication are meted out by bishops and stake presidents.

He explained that local leaders are informed by church headquarters about members who may possibly be violating church standards. The church's Strengthening the Members Committee pores over newspapers and other publications and identifies members accused of crimes, preaching false doctrine, criticizing leadership or other problems. That information is forwarded on to the person's bishop or stake president, who is charged with helping them overcome problems and stay active in the church.

"It is a way of keeping busy bishops informed," he said. "But it is up to the bishop to handle it. Bishops don't report back."

Michael Quinn, a historian living in Salt Lake City, who said he was excommunicated this week, said that may be the procedure. "But when a local leader is handed information from general authorities, it carries enormous weight and is the equivalent of instruction," he said.

But Elder Oaks said the information comes with no instructions to take specific action. "As a justice, one of my duties was to train judges on how to be judges. But I didn't tell them what verdict to reach," he said. "Bishops are trained (by general authorities) and know how this (procedure) works."

Reported opinions by some observers that church authorities are suddenly cracking down on liberal and conservative dissidents in an effort to keep the church focused as it grows are also off the mark, Elder Oaks said.

He explained that LDS scriptures have long taught that general and local church leaders are responsible to see that members stick to approved church doctrine when they teach or speak, and weed out those who persist in preaching false doctrine or criticizing leaders.

But that doesn't mean members can't differ with their leaders or express personal opinions, he said.

"This business about disciplinary action casting a pall over free speech and dissent is just inaccurate and self-serving," Elder Oaks said, noting the press coverage is evidence the church can't quiet dissent.

"They are trying to get a movement started by exaggerating their grievances . . . They are trying to get every person who has a question about church doctrine (to believe) that the general authorities will cast them into outer darkness."

Elder Oaks said disagreements between leadership and members have occurred since the church began. "But the issue isn't disagreement, it's how you handle it," Oaks said.

In a speech given in 1987, Oaks said differences between church members and leaders should be taken up privately. "Public debate - the means of resolving differences in a democratic government - is not appropriate in our church government," Oaks said.

In the talk to LDS university students, Oaks said other options open to church members are keeping differences to oneself or patiently pondering and praying about a resolution.

As an historian, Quinn said he can't work in that environment and research church history. He says he never criticized church leadership in his published work but merely stated what leadership did or is doing currently. "In my wildest fears, I never thought I would be excommunicated for publicizing an article on the status of Mormon women and the priesthood," Quinn said.

Because church disciplinary councils are confidential and Quinn did not attend his own council, no one but his stake leaders know the evidence that resulted in his excommunication. Quinn and three others said the charge brought against each of them was apostasy.

Elder Oaks said he doesn't know the evidence in any of the cases either. But news articles about public criticism of church leaders, embracing false doctrine and previous meetings with church leaders are an indication, Oaks said, it would appear those disciplined are guilty of apostasy.

According to church policy, apostasy includes "members who repeatedly act in clear, open and deliberate public opposition to the church or its leaders; persist in teaching as Church doctrine information that is not church doctrine after being corrected by their bishops or higher authority."

"What we have had in the past several years is a deliberate frontal assault on the church and on its doctrine and its leaders by a number of different people and organizations," Oaks said. "It is not a phenomenon of the past 30 days."

Those disciplined who talked with the Deseret News said they had been "called in" by their local leaders before, and the final action taken against them didn't come as a surprise. But none of them said they were apostates.

"I don't go by the definition in the handbook," said Maxine Hanks, a 37-year-old feminist and author living in Salt Lake City. She said she was excommunicated for publicly airing her views on women in the priesthood and criticizing church leaders.

"According to the dictionary, apostasy means to abandon one's faith," Hanks said. "I have abandoned church policy and false authority, but I am in harmony with my faith in God."

While a duty of church leaders is to discipline members when necessary, church policy advises leaders to act in a spirit of love and a desire to help. Leaders are also instructed to invite expelled members to return to full fellowship with the church.

Lavina Fielding Anderson is an author and former church magazine editor living in Salt Lake City who said her recent excommunication for apostasy most likely stemmed from her writings on local church leaders abusing members. She said her stake president was courteous and respectful during the weeks they discussed their differences and following her council.

"But why does it feel so unloving?" she said. "I have to be honest, this feels like punishment."

She said she plans to appeal her expulsion to the church's First Presidency, which church procedures allow.

"I know some of these people," Elder Oaks said. "They are valued by the Lord and by the church. The thing I want most is to have all these good people straighten out their thinking, change their course and get back into full fellowship."