Mormon Church states opposition to gay marriage but hints at subtler shift

The Mormon church leaves no doubt that it opposes gay marriage, but in many ways it has been working to show more compassion for the gay community in recent years.

Rick Bowmer/AP
The afternoon session of the two-day Mormon church conference begins Saturday in Salt Lake City. More than 100,000 Latter-day Saints are expected for the church's biannual general conference.

For the second time in two years, a top official of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has explicitly stated the church's opposition to gay marriage. 

At the church's biannual conference in Salt Lake City Saturday, Neil Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve, the church's second-highest governing body, said: "While many governments and well-meaning individuals have redefined marriage, the Lord has not. He designated the purpose of marriage to go far beyond the personal satisfaction and fulfillment of adults to, more importantly, advancing the ideal setting for children to be born, reared, and nurtured."

The statement is no surprise. Last year, another member of the Quorum said human laws cannot "make moral what God has declared immoral."

Many churches in the United States are struggling with how to approach gay marriage, but Saturday's declaration comes at a time when the issue has particular resonance for the Mormon church.

On Dec. 20, a federal district judge in Salt Lake City overturned Utah's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Some 60 percent of Utahns identify themselves as Mormons, according to a recent Gallup poll.

But more deeply, the church has been undergoing a profound change in its attitude toward gay members in recent years, say members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community.

The shift came after the church was exposed as a driving force behind the passage of California's Proposition 8, which in 2008 banned gay marriages before being overturned by the US Supreme Court last year. A New York Times report showed how intimately Mormons were involved in the Prop. 8 campaign:

The canvass work could be exacting and highly detailed. Many Mormon wards in California, not unlike Roman Catholic parishes, were assigned two ZIP codes to cover. Volunteers in one ward, according to training documents written by a Protect Marriage volunteer, obtained by people opposed to Proposition 8 and shown to The New York Times, had tasks ranging from “walkers,” assigned to knock on doors; to “sellers,” who would work with undecided voters later on; and to “closers,” who would get people to the polls on Election Day.

One organizer estimated that Mormons made up 80 to 90 percent of the people who went door-to-door stumping for Prop. 8. In its headline, the Times proclaimed: "Mormons Tipped Scale in Ban on Gay Marriage."

The backlash that ensued was significant: "What the non-Mormon world didn't get to see was how destructive that was inside the faith," Mitch Mayne, an openly gay Mormon in the San Francisco area, told Mother Jones magazine last year.

Since then, the church has made numerous efforts – both publicly and more quietly – to be more compassionate to members of the LGBT community. Mr. Mayne said a top church official, historian Marlin Jensen, met with angry church members and apologized "for the pain that Prop. 8 caused." The church also worked with the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University to make a booklet that encourages Mormon parents to embrace their LGBT children, Mother Jones reported. It created a website with a similar purpose called Love One Another.

Then last May, the church conspicuously supported a Boy Scouts change of policy that allowed gay members. Meanwhile, some gay Mormons say they have felt a dramatic shift at local services.

"Everybody is welcome here. Nobody is under that threat of being excommunicated," said Mayne.

Mr. Anderson's statement Saturday is a further effort to make the church's position on homosexuality plain. It leaves no doubt that the church continues to oppose homosexuality. But it also exhorts followers to show compassion for those who are gay.

Speaking of church members who "struggle with same-sex attraction," he said he admires people who confront this "trial of faith and stay true to the commandments of God." But he added: "Everyone, independent of their decisions and beliefs, deserves our kindness and consideration."

The statements echoed the church's instructions on December's federal court decision. "God expects us to uphold and keep His commandments regardless of divergent opinions or trends in society," it reads. "Nevertheless, all visitors are welcome to our chapels and premises so long as they respect our standards of conduct while there.... The gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us to love and treat all people with kindness and civility – even when we disagree."

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