By Kent Larsen
LDS Church Says to Shutter Local 'Official' Websites
SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH -- The LDS Church's Presiding Bishopric has sent a
letter to local units directing them to shut down the websites they sponsor
for their units. The instruction came in a letter dated March 15th to stake,
mission, and district presidents, as well as bishops and branch presidents,
at least some of whom read the letter in local meetings on Sunday. But the
instructions have also led to some misunderstanding as members assume the
Church is asking for all sites about the LDS Church to be shut down.
In the letter, the presiding bishopric indicates that the decision comes
amid concerns for presenting "a single, unified Church voice," and for
"accurate and dignified" information about local units. It also worries that
"the rights of third parties be protected and respected through strict
compliance with applicable laws." But the letter also indicates that it
covers "local unit web sites" and requests that "local Church units and
organizations should not create or sponsor web sites" and says existing
unit-sponsored sites should be discontinued.
But webmasters of non-official sites worry that the letter will be
misinterpreted, "It needs to be clear that the policy applies only to
official Unit-sponsored sites, and not to privately operated or commercial
sites," says LauraMaery Post, author of "Mormons on the Internet." "This
could easily get twisted out of its original meaning, and there will be
people disappearing from the Internet, believing that the "Church" has told
them the Internet is a bad, bad thing."
Long-time LDS webmaster Rex Goode agrees, "I fear the hysteria of people who
assume the letter means that we are all to shut down our sites, and even
worse, that some people are going to feel guilty visiting our sites.
Obviously, the Church should want to control the content of sites it can
reasonably be held liable for. Our private sites can never get them in legal
trouble. If we break the law, we can be in trouble, but the Church can't be
held liable for our actions." One webmaster of a private site on the
discussion list LDS Webmasters already reports a suggestion that he delete
his site based on the letter.
However, in spite of the distinction, some non-official websites are at risk
because of the change. Kari Thurber and John Lewis' site StakeInfo.com is
set up specifically to host websites for local units. If those units can't
have websites, their nascent business is at risk.
As Thurber and Lewis learned when they started their business, local leaders
have been confused about whether or not they could sponsor local websites,
but before this letter the official policy seems to have been simply that
there was not a policy. Last September in response to Mormon News' query,
LDS Church spokesman Randy Ripplinger indicated that the Church didn't then
have a policy on the issue. "The Church neither endorses nor prohibits
private websites. At the present time, the Church has no official plans to
launch Church unit websites," Ripplinger said at that time.
Without a stated direction, many local units have created websites for local
units. The Open Directory project's LDS section lists more than 150 such
websites, but the directory typically lists only a portion of the sites
available. However, these websites have sometimes caused problems. Without
Church-approved images and text, local webmasters have sometimes spent many
hours creating suitable images for local websites at the direction of local
leaders or, in some cases, even used images or text that violates the
copyright laws. Worse problems are at least possible, with one rumor on the
LDS Webmasters list claiming that a local unit put the names of
excommunicated members on its website, leading to a lawsuit against the
Church. [Mormon News has not verified that such a lawsuit has been filed,
and only includes this information to demonstrate what could happen without
Meanwhile, some website creators have expressed disappointment that the
websites they spent so much time on must be taken down, but "the Presiding
Bishopric has a valid need to contain things like copyrighted materials and
clearly inappropriate items from "unit" sponsorship," says Thayne Andersen.
But Andersen also worries that local websites will loose something with
centralized control, "The tendency is to also contain artistic and creative
applications as well. When is the last time that you saw original art in a
church building, no matter how appropriate?" Andersen says he will convert
the website he prepared for his ward into a personal website, not sponsored
or supported by his ward.