Mormon leaders are requiring all church members to turn in their "temple recommends," or authorizations to enter one of the faith's 124 temples across the globe. In exchange, members will get new ones that look nearly the same but have a bar code that can be scanned at the door.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not release statistics on what percentage of its 13 million members hold a current recommend, but the task will eat up many hours of time for Mormon bishops and stake presidents, who must reissue the cards.
Only Mormons with current recommends can enter a temple, which is considered "the House of the Lord." It is where they participate in religious ceremonies that lay out the purpose of life and make covenants to serve Jesus Christ and their fellow men. It is also where weddings are performed and proxy baptisms for the dead are done.
Although LDS spokesman Scott Trotter declined to explain the reason for the recommend exchange, members have been told it is for "security reasons."
Such steps may have been deemed necessary because of several Internet sites that provide a replica of the paper recommend that can be downloaded and possibly used to gain unapproved entry to a temple.
"My sole purpose was to show people what a recommend looks like," said former Mormon Richard Packham of Roseburg, Ore., who published the image on his Web site. "It is intended as educational information . . . [and I am not] aware of anyone who has tried to download the image from my Web site and use it to gain entrance to a temple."
Still, Packham acknowledges other Web sites do provide fake recommends, and he can see why someone without a legitimate recommend would want to enter an LDS temple.
"Some people are intrigued by the aspects of the church that are secret and exclusionary," Packham said in an e-mail. "They want to be 'in on' the mystery. . . . And, yes, some people are terribly curious about what goes on in the endowment and want to see it for themselves, at any cost and any risk."
Packham said he believes the new recommends may reduce such unauthorized entries.
Protecting the sanctity of its temples from unworthy participants has long been one of the church's goals.
That's where the recommend comes in.
Starting in the so-called Mormon Reformation of 1856, LDS leaders began asking members about their adherence to religious principles. They were asked about their faith and commitment but also about whether they'd committed murder or adultery. (See associated story.)
At that time, such questions were not necessarily used to determine whether a Mormon could go to the temple - in fact, the St. George Temple, Utah's first, wasn't dedicated until 1877.
For years thereafter, a Latter-day Saint had to be invited by the church leaders to enter a temple, wrote Brigham Young University law professor Edward Kimball in the spring 1998 Journal of Mormon History. Local leaders, relying on "broad categories of worthiness," recommended members to the church president, who issued approval.
"Letters of recommendation had to be countersigned by the church president until 1891 when Wilford Woodruff, who had signed over 3,000 that year, delegated responsibility for determining worthiness to bishops and stake presidents," Kimball wrote.
The first set of standard questions was issued about 1922 and included matters of belief in God and Jesus Christ, the LDS Church as a restoration of pure Christianity, loyalty to church leaders and willingness to live Mormon principles.
Payment of tithing was always important for a temple recommend, but adherence to the faith's prohibition against coffee, tea, alcohol and tobacco varied in strictness.
The 1940 and 1944 versions settled for a "willingness to undertake" to observe the health code known as the Word of Wisdom. The 1968 version specified that keeping the Word of Wisdom meant abstaining from "alcoholic beverages" rather than "liquor" to "make sure that even light beer and wine were included," Kimball wrote.
While some LDS bishops and stake presidents have tried to make caffeinated drinks one of the prohibited substances, he wrote, "cola drinks have never been included."
Nor has the use of birth control.
For the past few decades, people have been asked whether they "support, affiliate with or agree with" any opposition groups, which is often seen as code for polygamists.
Worried about Mormon involvement in the thrift-and-loan scandals of the 1970s, church leaders added the question: "Are you honest in your dealings with your fellow men?"
In 1979, a new question aimed at the problem of domestic and sexual abuse asked applicants to consider whether anything in their conduct within the family was "not in harmony with the teachings of the Church."
The church began to ask about child support in the 1980s and in 1999 began asking specifically if candidates were up to date in their financial obligations to children and former spouses.
"Such interviews have always been conducted with the intent of encouraging members to live Christlike lives," Mormon officials said in a statement this week. "As we see increasing strains on families everywhere, church leaders have felt it necessary to place additional emphasis on meeting all family responsibilities and obligations."