Survey links gay suicides to religious messages
Nationwide poll • Preachings from pulpits also contribute to anti-LGBT views.
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Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe that messages from U.S. religious pulpits are connected to the rising rates of suicide among gay youths, according to a new poll.

And though Americans are split about whether they see homosexual activity as a sin, 72 percent say religion contributes to negative views of gays and lesbians.

The survey includes breakouts of some faith traditions, but too few Mormons took part to draw conclusions about how members of Utah's predominant faith regard their own leaders' handling of the homosexuality issue, said Daniel Cox, research director for the Public Religion Research Institute, which conducted the survey in partnership with Religion News Service.

The Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been the target of anger from lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy groups after its high-profile role in passing the Proposition 8 gay-marriage ban in California and, more recently, a sermon by senior apostle Boyd K. Packer.

Speaking at the church's semiannual General Conference this month, Packer referred to same-sex attraction as "impure and unnatural."

Demonstrators surrounded Temple Square for a silent protest in the wake of those comments, and the church later issued a statement strongly condemning bullying of, and unkindness toward, those harboring same-sex attraction.

The nationwide poll's high percentages startled Cox, whose nonprofit institute conducted it Oct. 14-17, prompted by a rash of teen suicides linked to anti-gay harassment and bullying. The poll has a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

The executive director of Faith in America, a nonprofit group founded in 2005 to combat negative religious messages about homosexuality, pointed to the poll as progress for his cause.

"There is a growing awareness and understanding," said Brent Childers to Religion News Service, "about the harm that is caused when society places a religious or moral stamp of disapproval on the lives of gay and lesbian individuals, especially youths."

In the survey, more than twice as many Americans give places of worship low marks in handling the homosexuality issue as give them high marks. Four in 10 respondents give religious organizations a D (18 percent) or an F (24 percent).

But many rate their own places of worship more favorably on the issue, with 28 percent giving them an A and 17 percent a B.

Of all religious groups, white evangelicals are most likely to give their own church high marks on the topic.

Three-quarters give their church an A or a B. Catholics are most likely to hand their churches low grades, with nearly a third giving them a D or an F.

Younger people, women and Democrats are most likely to say messages from faith communities contribute to the suicides and negative perceptions of gays and lesbians.

Eric Ethington, a gay-rights activist who organized the protest of Packer's speech, says messages from the pulpit clearly cause stress for gay and lesbian LDS youths. But he suspects most Mormons would give their church high marks on the issue.

"Only members actually affected by it can recognize the [negative] effects," he said.

David Melson, executive director of Affirmation: Gay & Lesbian Mormons, considers Packer's comments "inexcusable," given their power to influence LDS young people. He says there is evidence that three of 12 young gay and lesbian people who have recently taken their lives in North America were Mormons.

Although Melson believes religion deserves much of the blame for the stresses suffered by LGBT youths, he also believes it gets a bad rap.

"There are tens of thousands of welcoming congregations and denominations in the United States," he said. "Even within the LDS Church, there are wards and stakes that are welcoming and affirming."

Some religious leaders say the issue is too complicated to pin the blame for deaths on what preachers say from the pulpit.

"I don't think we have nearly as much impact as that says," said Mike Gray, pastor of Southeast Baptist Church in Cottonwood Heights. "As a whole, I would think the Christian community offers hope, not condemnation."

At the same time, Gray added, preachers have the right and responsibility to warn about sin — "to tell people to stop at some places that are detrimental to their life and future."

Earlier this month, Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, said that while the suicides are tragic, it's unclear that most were caused by anti-gay bullying.

"Worse, it is libelous to suggest that because Christianity (and Judaism and Islam) is opposed to homosexuality that somehow it should be held responsible for whatever bullying did go on," Donohue said in a statement on the group's website. "Indeed, to suggest culpability is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to stifle religious speech."

kmoulton@sltrib.com