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The ninth World Congress of Families begins Tuesday in downtown Salt Lake City, with a parade of national flags carried by International Children's Choir members in native country costumes; an invocation by Rabbi Avremi Zippel, co-director of Chabad Lubavitch of Utah; and a keynote address by a Mormon apostle.
Organizers tout the four-day meeting as "the largest gathering of pro-family advocates in the world," attracting more than 3,000 participants and some 185 speakers, including scholars, researchers, religious leaders and activists.
The conference, according to a news release, will tackle topics such as "ways to strengthen marriages and families; the social costs of pornography; human trafficking; global health care initiatives; the bioethics of cloning and genetic modification; and many more."
Since its founding in the 1990s, Mormons have been an integral part of the World Congress of Families, which promotes "the natural family," meaning a husband, a wife and children.
And Latter-day Saints are everywhere on this week's program as well. They include Utah Gov. Gary Herbert; Tim Ballard of Operation Underground Railroad; The Piano Guys; Stephanie Nielson, burn survivor, author and blogger; Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes; authors Richard and Linda Eyre; and even the famed Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
M. Russell Ballard, a member of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, will open the conference with a keynote address, highlighting the Utah-based faith's beliefs about the family.
Ballard has defended the church's 1995 document "The Family: A Proclamation to the World," describing it as "a clarion call to protect and strengthen families and a stern warning in a world where declining values and misplaced priorities threaten to destroy society by undermining [the family, which is] ... the basic unit of society, of the economy, of our culture, and of our government."
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints "has long been a strong ally to the World Congress of Families," Janice Shaw Crouse, a member of the board of directors of WCF and executive director of the World Congress of Families IX, said in a news release, "and it is an honor to have one of its senior apostles speak at our conference particularly someone whose lifelong commitment and leadership have been to preserve and strengthen the family unit."
The Southern Poverty Law Center, however, has declared the World Congress of Families to be a "hate group" for fostering homophobia under the guise of protecting families. At a news conference Monday, the Human Rights Campaign decried WCF support of laws in other countries that criminalize being gay.
WCF officials balk at the hate-group allegation, saying they are "not 'anti' anything." Members, they say, are simply people of faith who celebrate the natural family and focus on how to make families stronger.
Rich Kane contributed to this story.