SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A top Mormon leader reiterated the church's opposition to gay marriage Saturday during the church's biannual general conference.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' stance on homosexuality has softened in recent years, but this marks the second consecutive conference in which leaders took time to emphasize the faith's insistence that marriage should be limited to unions between a man and a woman, as God created.
"While many governments and well-meaning individuals have redefined marriage, the Lord has not," said Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve. "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."
In the October 2013 church conference, Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum said human laws cannot "make moral what God has declared immoral."
The church sent a letter to local leaders that includes that message, Andersen said Saturday. "As the world slips away from the Lord's law of chastity, we do not," he said.
During the first day of the weekend conference, LDS leaders on Saturday also encouraged missionaries to stay strong amid the inevitable personal abuse they will encounter and parents to shelter their children from the damaging effects of pornography.
A demonstration outside an all-male meeting by a Mormon women's group advocating for gender equality was uneventful, despite a contentious lead up to the event.
The conference brings more than 100,000 Latter-day Saints to Salt Lake City to find out church news and soak up words of guidance and inspiration from the faith's top leaders. Thousands more will listen or watch from around the world in 95 languages on television, radio, satellite and Internet broadcasts. More than half of all 15 million Latter-day Saints live outside of the U.S., church figures show.
The conference is widely followed and analyzed on social media, with many using the Twitter hash tag, "#LDSconf."
Gay marriage has been an especially hot topic in Utah since December, when a federal judge overturned Utah's voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage. More than 1,000 gay and lesbian couples married until the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay on marriages pending a ruling from a federal appeals court in Denver. A hearing is set there for Thursday.
Andersen encouraged church members not to buckle under the pressure of a growing movement on social media and elsewhere by advocates who want to make gay marriage legal. He offered the example of a woman who articulated her support for "traditional marriage" on Facebook and refused to take it down despite backlash.
Andersen is a member of the church's Quorum of the Twelve, which is the second-highest governing body of the church. Modeled after Jesus Christ's apostles, the 12 men serve under the church president and his two counselors.
Andersen said church members who "struggle with same-sex attraction" should be of special concern. He said he admires people who confront this "trial of faith and stay true to the commandments of God."
"But everyone, independent of their decisions and beliefs, deserves our kindness and consideration," Andersen said.
The church teaches that while same-sex attraction itself isn't a sin, succumbing to it is.
The church's message on homosexuality has evolved since it was one of the leading forces behind California's Proposition 8, a ban on gay marriage. A website launched last year encouraged more compassion toward gays, implored them to stay in the faith and clarified that church leaders no longer "necessarily advise" gays to marry people of the opposite sex in what used to be a widely practiced Mormon workaround for homosexuality.
In May, church leaders backed the Boy Scouts' policy allowing gays in the ranks. Some gay Mormons who left or were forced out of the church say they are now being welcomed back — even though they remain in same-sex relationships.
It may seem like negligible progress to outsiders, but Mormon scholars said 2013 was landmark year for the religion on gay and lesbian issues.
Jeffrey Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve delivered a message Saturday directed at the faith's nearly 85,000 missionaries, more than any time in church history.
He relayed the story of a young woman who was spit on and had food thrown at her during her mission by a man who didn't want to hear their message. He highlighted the fact that she resisted the urge to retaliate.
"If you haven't already, you will one day find yourself called upon to defend your faith or even endure some personal abuse," Holland said. "Such moments will require both courage and courtesy on your part."
The spike in missionaries was triggered by the lowering of the minimum age for missionaries in the fall of 2012. Men can begin serving at 18, instead of 19, and women at 19, instead of 21. That has led to new, younger missionaries joining older ones.
Holland told missionaries that it's worth it to serve and remain faithful despite a world around them where many people are drawn to comfortable gods who demand little of them.
"It is obvious that the bumper-sticker query, 'What would Jesus do,' will not always bring a popular response," Holland said.
Church president Thomas Monson opened the morning session by talking about the progress of temple construction around the world. He said a new one in Gilbert, Ariz., became the 142nd temple and that there will be 170 when construction is completed on all the current projects.
No new temples were announced.
Linda Reeves, one of the three highest-ranking female leaders in the church, urged parents and leaders to help prevent children from falling into "Satan's trap of pornography." Reeves is the second counselor in the general presidency of the church's Relief Society, the organization for women.
"They need to know the dangers of pornography and how it overtakes lives, causing loss of the spirit, distorted feelings, deceit, damaged relationships, loss of self-control, and nearly total consumption of time, thought and energy," Reeves said. "Pornography is more vile, evil and graphic than ever before."
Outside the 21,000-seat conference center, a potentially acrimonious showdown between church officials and a Mormon's women group pushing the church to allow females in the priesthood was avoided.
Despite earlier threats to bar the women from entering Temple Square to stand in line for an all-male priesthood session, church officials allowed nearly 500 men and women in the square Saturday afternoon, only barring news media that wanted to follow them in.
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.
"We are not invisible," Kate Kelly, the group's founder, told the group before they marched to Temple Square. "We will be reverent, we will be respectful, but we will not be silenced."
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