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In a letter to be shared with rank-and-file Mormons in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's legalization of gay marriage across the nation, top LDS leaders are reaffirming the faith's steadfast belief in — and exclusive commitment to — heterosexual unions.

"Marriage between a man and a woman was instituted by God," reads the letter from the Utah-based church's governing First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, "and is central to his plan for his children and for the well-being of society."

The letter and accompanying background materials are "being sent to leaders of LDS congregations for them to share with members," church spokesman Eric Hawkins said Tuesday, but "not in sacrament meeting [Mormonism's main worship service]. [They're] intended to be used to guide a discussion."

Instead, the letter instructs local lay leaders "to meet with all adults, young men and young women on either July 5 or July 12 in a setting other than sacrament meeting and read to them the entire statement."

Changes in "civil law do not, indeed cannot, change the moral law that God has established," the letter continues. "God expects us to uphold and keep his commandments regardless of divergent opinions or trends in society."

No matter what civil authorities in the U.S. or other countries dictate, Mormon officials "will not employ their ecclesiastical authority to perform marriages between two people of the same sex," the letter says, "and the church does not permit its meetinghouses or other properties to be used for ceremonies, receptions or other activities associated with same-sex marriages."

Given the U.S. Constitution's freedom-of-religion protections, enshrined in the First Amendment, the high court's ruling does not force churches to recognize gay marriages.

That means, of course, that marriages performed in LDS temples will continue to be between only faithful men and women. Mormons view such unions as "sealed" for eternity.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its members, the letter insists, should have the right to "express and advocate religious convictions on marriage, family and morality free from retaliation or retribution."

At the same time, the highest-level LDS leaders urge Mormons "to love and treat all people with kindness and civility — even when we disagree."

"We affirm that those who avail themselves of laws or court rulings authorizing same-sex marriage should not be treated disrespectfully," the letter states. "Indeed, the church has advocated for rights of same-sex couples in matters of hospitalization and medical care, fair housing and employment, and probate, so long as these do not infringe on the integrity of the traditional family or the constitutional rights of churches."

The LDS Church proved instrumental in the Utah Legislature's passage earlier this year of landmark legislation protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals from discrimination in housing and employment while providing religious-liberty safeguards.

The LGBT protections, which had trouble even getting a hearing in previous years, won swift, overwhelming approval, thanks to the LDS faith's headline-grabbing endorsement.

Mormon leaders teach that same-sex attraction is not a sin, only acting on it is. LDS officials, including apostle D. Todd Christofferson, also have said Latter-day Saints who support gay marriage are not in danger of losing their church memberships or temple privileges.

At the same time, the discussion material being sent this week to lay Mormon leaders emphasizes that members who have "reservations" about the faith's stance "should make a diligent effort, including earnest prayer and scripture study, to find solutions and answers themselves."

Kendall Wilcox, gay LDS filmmaker and producer of "The Kitchen Case," a documentary about Utah's battle over same-sex marriage, is not surprised by the church's emphasis on its doctrine of marriage and family in the letter and discussion materials.

"I do not take it as an attack on me as a gay member of the church nor on the rights appropriately affirmed by the Supreme Court," Wilcox writes in an email. "That said, and as always, I wish the church were as proactive in reminding the church about the equally important doctrine and commandments to truly demonstrate love and acceptance to our fellow children of God, as it does about the doctrines regarding morality, marriage and family."

Mitch Mayne, a San Francisco Mormon and gay-rights activist, urges his fellow members who back same-sex marriage to be patient with those who disagree with the court's ruling.

"This is a terrifying time for religious and political conservatives," Mayne writes in an email. " As our Savior's hand moves our human family closer to integration, inclusion, and honor/equality for all his children, there will continue to be fearful reactions. That kind of fear of equality isn't an exclusively Mormon response, it's a 'human' response."

Mayne, who remains an active Latter-day Saint, says he will "strive to lend my more conservative brothers and sisters the same patience, love and compassion I wish had been offered to me."

He knows how it feels, Mayne writes, to be on the "outside."

It isn't "fun or comfortable — it's frightening and lonely," he says. "It must feel that same way now for those who stand against marriage equality. I just want to strive to be the person I wish others had been able to be for me."

Twitter: @religiongal

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