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There were the expected faith stories: Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman ran for president, so reporters from around the world scurried to explore their shared religion.

There also were surprises: The LDS Church lowered the age limits for its missionaries, shaking up Utah culture, and hundreds of Mormons took to the streets to march in, of all things, a Gay Pride Parade.

There were continuing clashes: Catholic bishops battled the White House over contraception coverage and congregants battled one another over ownership of two Salt Lake Valley houses of worship.

Here, then, are snapshots of those top stories and more from Utah's religious scene in 2012:

Mitt's — and Mormonism's — momentous moment

Mitt Romney made history and his faith made headlines.

The former Massachusetts governor and Utah's favorite adopted son — by virtue of leading Salt Lake City's 2002 Winter Olympics — became the first Mormon to head a major party ticket, seizing the Republican presidential nomination in August. He came out swinging in the first presidential debate, staggering his stunned opponent. But President Barack Obama, who never seemed on the ropes, regained his footing in the two rematches and punched his way to a second term.

In the end, Romney landed 206 electoral votes (including Utah's 6) — 64 short of the magic number. His Mormon religion — seen as a possible handicap, especially during the GOP primaries — never surfaced as much of an issue in the final runoff. In fact, Romney swept nearly the entire Bible Belt and won more votes from white evangelicals than Republican John McCain did in 2008.

But don't think that Mormonism went MIA from the fall fight. Hardly. The so-called "Mormon moment" brought reams of stories about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from media outlets large and small. Reporters wrote about the faith's missionary effort, its humanitarian outreach, its welfare system and its clean-cut image. They also probed the faith's secretive but substantial finances, its past racial policies, its current treatment of gays and women, and its long-abandoned practice of polygamy.

Even the oft-debated "caffeine question" bubbled up, to the extent that the Utah-based church released a statement reaffirming that the famous Mormon "Word of Wisdom" — no alcohol, tobacco, coffee or tea — is silent about the stimulant. LDS leaders didn't say caffeine is healthy, but they left no doubt that there is nothing in the religion's health code forbidding members from downing a Dew, pounding a Pepsi or chomping on chocolate.

A prescription for conflict

Utah's top Catholic leader, Bishop John C. Wester, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Communications, tentatively welcomed President Barack Obama's compromise allowing church-affiliated hospitals, schools and charities to refuse to cover contraception for employees as long as an outside insurer provided it. But that starting point in negotiations ended in disagreement. Ultimately, U.S. Catholic bishops and evangelical colleges found the health-care overhaul's mandate calling for free birth-control coverage a hard pill to swallow and denounced it as an assault on religious freedom. Despite that opposition, polls showed a majority of Americans — and even most Catholics — support free contraception coverage.

For LDS missions, a change for the ages

For 18-year-old Mormon men and 19-year-old Mormon women, "mission pending" became "mission possible" — all with one prophetic pronouncement.

LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson, revered by Latter-day Saints as a "prophet, seer and revelator," took to the podium at the Oct. 6 opening session of the faith's fall General Conference and declared that, "effective immediately," all worthy LDS men could go on two-year proselytizing missions at age 18 (down from 19) and women could go for 1 ½-year stints at age 19 (down from 21).

The sweeping changes promised sweeping effects on everything from LDS dating and marriage patterns to college scholarships and enrollments — especially in Mormon-dominated Utah. The reason for younger missionaries? Simple math. "The Lord is hastening his work," LDS apostle Jeffrey R. Holland said, "and he needs more and more willing missionaries."

The plan is working. Within weeks, Mormon mission applications jumped by 471 percent — with more than half coming from women, who typically constitute less than a fifth of the LDS missionary force. The church also scrapped plans for a controversial high-rise at its showcase Missionary Training Center and went back to the drawing board to find another way to expand the Provo facility.

Mormon battalion — Part II

In 1846, the Mormon Battalion and its 543 men — enlisted in the war against Mexico — marched out of Iowa and into the history books, leaving behind a trail of landmarks and legends. Last June, Mormons Building Bridges and its army of nearly 400 men, women and children — engaged in a far-different battle — marched across town in Salt Lake City, leaving behind a trail of good will and hope. The former journey covered 1,850 miles; the latter covered six blocks, but both made headlines and history. The 2012 procession, with LDS foot soldiers decked out in their Sunday best, showed grass-roots Mormon support for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community with an eye toward healing wounds and closing the distance between the LDS and LGBT camps. Earlier in the year, at church-owned Brigham Young University, hundreds packed a classroom to hear gay and lesbian students — part of an unofficial school club called Understanding Same-Gender Attraction — describe their experiences of being homosexual and Mormon. In addition, a new independently produced LDS-themed video debuted to help gay Latter-day Saints as part of a nationwide "It Gets Better" campaign. Capping off the year, the Utah-based church itself unveiled a website — — to soften Mormon rhetoric about homosexuality while maintaining a hard line against same-sex marriage.

One church, two factions

A house divided cannot stand, the Good Book says, at least not without some bad feelings. That happened at West Valley City's Tongan United Methodist Church this past year after national leaders stepped in to suspend and, ultimately, remove the pastor for allegedly violating the faith's policy for reporting abuse. The ousted preacher, Filimone Havili Mone, was charged in December with failure to report abuse of a child. The class B misdemeanor stems from allegations that an older boy had sexually abused younger boys in the congregation. The church has splintered into two factions — the Methodists and the Wesleyan Tongans — and the parties are headed to civil court to settle on who controls the church's property and money. At times, West Valley City police were called out to keep the peace during Sunday services.

Schism among Vietnamese Buddhists

Buddhists preach harmony and compassion, but those traits didn't prevent a painful schism among Utah's Vietnamese community about ownership of west Salt Lake City's Pho Quang Temple. There were protests this past year and even break-ins targeting the West Valley City offices of a Pho Quang founder. An uneasy truce allowed the opposing factions to hold competing worship rituals on Saturdays and Sundays after a judge ordered the sides to share the temple in Rose Park. The conflict, still dragging on in 3rd District Court, pits local organizers and their backers against a California-based corporation known as the Vietnamese-American Unified Buddhist Congress.

Goodbye to the good sisters

They came to Ogden in 1944 to build and operate St. Benedict's Hospital. Now, nearly seven decades later, the Sisters of St. Benedict are leaving. But their legacy of love and service will live on. Their St. Benedict's Foundation, which has handed out more than $4.6 million during the past 17 years to nonprofit groups, especially those helping women and children, still has $5 million in assets to divvy to well-meaning organizations. The five remaining nuns — ranging from age 75 to 87 — will go home to Minnesota's St. Benedict's Monastery, from which they came, but not until their Utah monastery is sold. As do-gooders go, few do better — or did better — than the Sisters of St. Benedict.

Bahai's beginnings

Utah's Baha'i community marked the centennial of its roots in the Beehive State. In the fall of 1912, Abdu'l-Bahá, son of the faith's founder, made a historic trek to Salt Lake City. The Persian man, in flowing gray robes and full beard, had come to the United States to spread the good news of the Baha'i religion — the possibility of world peace, universal suffrage, equal rights and an end to poverty. A hundred years later, Utah is home to about 750 Baha'is who meet in nearly a dozen congregations. —

Nation's top religion stories of 2012

Last year's No. 1 U.S. religion story was the Newtown, Conn., school shooting and the search for meaning that followed.

Before the mid-December attack, members of the Religion Newswriters Association ranked the following as 2012's top faith stories:

1. Catholic bishops led opposition to the health-care overhaul's mandate that insurance coverage for contraception be provided for employees.

2. A Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life survey showed "nones" as the fastest-growing religious group in the United States, rising to 19.6 percent of the population.

3. The circulation of an anti-Islam film trailer, "Innocence of Muslims," sparked unrest in several countries.

4. Mitt Romney's Mormonism — despite widespread media coverage — turned out to be a virtual nonissue in the fall presidential chase.

5. Monsignor William Lynn, of Philadelphia, became the nation's first senior Catholic official to be found guilty of covering up priestly child abuse. Bishop Robert Finn, of Kansas City, Mo., later became the first bishop to be convicted of failing to report abuse.

6. The Vatican criticized the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella group of progressive U.S. nuns.

7. Voters approved same-sex marriage in Maine, Maryland and Washington, while Minnesota defeated a ban on gay marriage.

8. The Episcopal Church adopted a trial ritual for blessing same-sex couples. Earlier, the United Methodists failed to vote on approving gay clergy, and the Presbyterians (USA) voted to study, rather than sanction, same-sex-marriage ceremonies.

9. Six people were killed and three wounded at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.

10. The Southern Baptist Convention elected its first black president, the Rev. Fred Luter, of New Orleans.

Source: Religion Newswriters Association

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