A Mormon women's group pushing for females to be let in the priesthood was allowed on church property Saturday, but the group still was not let in all-male meeting its members asked to attend.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints told the Ordain Women group weeks ago that their members wouldn't be allowed in the meeting and threatened to bar them from entering Temple Square, saying activist events detract from the sacred environment of the church's biannual general conference.
Despite the order, the group said it would insist on being allowed on church property so its members could get in the standby line, reprising a similar demonstration from last year.
The potentially acrimonious showdown never materialized as the church allowed hundreds of men and women in the Salt Lake City square Saturday afternoon, only barring news media that wanted to follow them to the square.
Kimberly Baptista, one of the group's original members, said the women went one-by-one to the door of the Tabernacle and asked to be allowed in to the priesthood meeting, reprising a demonstration they did at the general conference last October. They were told no, as expected.
The women said they still consider the event a success. Not only did they have double the number of participants, they showed church leaders they are serious about the issue, Baptista said.
They started their event by gathering at a nearby park and singing Mormon hymns.
"We are not invisible," Kate Kelly, the group's founder, told the group. "We will be reverent, we will be respectful, but we will not be silenced."
Kristen Howey, a spokeswoman for the church, called the protest "disappointing."
"Despite polite and respectful requests from Church leaders not to make Temple Square a place of protest, a mixed group of men and women ignored that request and staged a demonstration outside the Tabernacle on General Conference weekend, refusing to accept ushers' directions and refusing to leave when asked," Howey said. "While not all the protesters were members of the Church, such divisive actions are not the kind of behavior that is expected from Latter-day Saints and will be as disappointing to our members as it is to Church leaders."
As they marched to Temple Square, a hard rain mixed with hail came down on the protesters, which included a few children in strollers or being held by their parents. The group kept going until they reached Temple Square, an immaculately manicured 35-acre area in downtown Salt Lake City where the church's towering flagship temple is surrounded by reflecting pools, statutes and buildings where visitors can learn about the faith.
They were trying to get in a session reserved for members of the priesthood, which includes most males in the church who are 12 and older. The session is broadcast live for all to watch.
Mormon church officials contend the women's group accounts for only a small fraction of church members.
"Women in the Church, by a very large majority, do not share your advocacy for priesthood ordination for women and consider that position to be extreme," the church wrote in a recent letter to the group.
That's probably accurate, said Armand Mauss, a retired professor of sociology and religious studies at Washington State University. A 2011 survey done by the Pew Research Center found that 87 of U.S. Mormons oppose ordaining women.
However, a large number of Mormon women want greater gender equality in the faith, Mauss said. Even if Ordain Women doesn't achieve the ultimate goal of changing doctrine about the priesthood, it may be pushing the church to take more incremental steps toward bringing women on to equal footing with men, Mauss said.
By reaching for a goal that is likely unattainable in the short term, they make other gender issues seem moderate by comparison, he said.
The push for equality by Mormon women's' groups has escalated in recent years, fueled by growing online and social media communities that allow LDS women from around the country and world to unite and discuss the causes they want to champion. By lowering the minimum age for female missionaries by two years to 19, thousands more young women are serving around the world.
They celebrated a milestone at the previous general conference in April 2013 when Jean Stevens, a woman, led a prayer for the first time in the 183-year history of the conference. On Sunday, Stevens, first counselor in the Primary General Presidency, urged members to face challenges with prayer and a trust in the Lord.
"We can trust that he will help us, not necessarily in the way we want but in the way that will best help us to grow," she said. "Submitting our will to his may be difficult, but it is essential to become like him and find the peace he offers us."
Recently, the church held the first-ever General Women's Meeting that brought together female members 8 and older.
"We're excited about these changes," Kelly said. "But we don't think these incremental, somewhat superficial, changes are sufficient for men and women to be equal in our church."
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