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In a nod to the complexities of modern families, LDS Church leaders Friday tweaked a new policy focused on same-sex couples and their children.
Mormons in same-sex relationships still should expect discipline from their local LDS leaders and possibly excommunication and their children still must wait until they turn 18 to get baptized.
But a clarification released Friday by the faith's governing First Presidency said that applies only to children whose "primary residence" is with a same-sex couple. If a child spends weekends with a parent in a same-sex relationship, for instance, he or she still can receive a naming blessing, be baptized or go on a proselytizing mission like any other Mormon.
The clarification sent to lay LDS leaders also said that if a child already has been baptized but is now living with a same-sex couple, the new policy does "not require that his or her membership activities or priesthood privileges be curtailed or that further ordinances be withheld."
"Decisions about any future ordinances for such children," the First Presidency added, "should be made by local leaders with their prime consideration being the preparation and best interests of the child."
Michael Otterson, the LDS Church's chief spokesman, noted in an accompanying post on the faith's website that "there are always situations that fall outside general guidelines and principles, which is why local leaders may ask for guidance from more senior leaders in particular cases."
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stresses that these clarifications don't change the underlying policy, released late last week and made partly in response to the legalization of same-sex marriage by the U.S. Supreme Court. That policy states that the church views couples in same-sex marriages or similar relationships as apostates. If their children want to become full-fledged Mormons, they have to disavow their parents' relationship and not be living with them most of the time.
The LDS Church doesn't consider gay attraction to be a sin, but says acting upon it is. Mormon leaders insist the faithful can support gay marriages, but being in one qualifies as a grievous sin.
"The new clarification from the church helps children who are being raised by both gay and heterosexual parents," said Troy Williams, executive director of the gay-rights group Equality Utah. "However, we are disappointed that children born of same-sex parents must still 'disavow' their parents' marriage. This is a hurtful requirement for any child."
He also said he was "grateful for the outpouring of love from many members in the LDS Church."
The policy, particularly the part affecting children, has drawn fire from those in and out of the Utah-based faith who consider it harsh and against the teachings of Jesus Christ. Top Mormon leaders, on the other hand, see it as a way to protect children from a conflict between their parents or guardians and their religion.
"Our concern with respect to children is their current and future well-being and the harmony of their home environment," said Friday's letter signed by LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson and his two counselors, Henry B. Eyring and Dieter F. Uchtdorf. "All children are to be treated with utmost respect and love. They are welcome to attend church meetings and participate in church activities. All children may receive priesthood blessings of healing and spiritual guidance."
In his post, Otterson offered a rebuttal to people who say that this policy is inconsistent with Christ's teachings.
"Of course the savior's love was never withheld from anyone and his words on the cross exemplify that," Otterson wrote. "But he also expressed love by teaching clear doctrine and standing firmly against sin with sometimes-tough lessons for which people rejected him. That is where church leaders stand today holding firm to the doctrinal position of right and wrong, while extending love to all people."
Neylan McBaine, founder of the Mormon Women Project, was upset at the initial policy change but has challenged herself to reassess it, particularly in light of the latest clarifications.
"I find myself today more willing to accept that maybe this will streamline processes than I did a week ago," she said. "But, again, I want to make clear that I wish they didn't exist at all."
She would prefer that lay leaders have flexibility to address issues as they arise and said treating gay couples and their children like "others" didn't match the day-to-day experience of Mormons.
"We do cross paths with families that are complicated and nontraditional," McBaine said, adding that she was relieved church leaders eased the rules for children with gay and straight parents.
On Friday, she started to think of the policy change as potentially respecting gay parents. If LDS leaders argue the policy is about protecting children, McBaine reasoned, that could be a tacit admission that "gay parents are good enough parents and these families are loving enough and these kids are getting enough support that we don't want to disrupt that. ... If that truly is the case and that is truly the motivation, that is quite remarkable."
Weston Clark is a married gay activist raising two adopted children. He is also a former Mormon, upset at the new policy. He sees Friday's clarification as a reaction to objections raised from within Mormonism, but he doubts it will blunt the criticism.
"It seems like they are kind of trying to creatively fix the problem of logistics, but they are not solving the problem of the message that they sent," he said. "It is still targeting children and it is still devaluing families with committed parents, and I think that is antithetical to a Christian religion."
While this policy may affect a small percentage of families, the impact on individuals can be massive.
Taylorsville resident Brandon Richardson was in the elders quorum presidency in his Mormon congregation and served as an LDS seminary teacher before he decided he couldn't continue denying his same-sex attractions.
He divorced his wife and now has joint custody of their children. Before the policy tweak, he told The Salt Lake Tribune: "I realize the church can discriminate against who they want to, but to punish children now for something their parent does is just so wrong."
Nick Literski, from Seattle, said he was "heartsick" at the initial policy because it may have prevented his daughter from going on a Mormon mission. Friday's clarification seems to clear the way for her to serve.
But the board of Affirmation, a support group for gay Mormons, warns the clarification could create a new "battleground" in which straight parents seek primary custody instead of joint custody with their gay counterparts.
"It could also pit LDS Church members against gay or lesbian family members who want to adopt or care for children," Affirmation's board said in a news release. "Instead of increasing harmony in families, this may actually cause greater family discord."
The policy tweak came before Saturday's planned mass resignation rally at 1 p.m. in City Creek Park in downtown Salt Lake City.
According to the event's Facebook page, 1,200 people say they intend to be there, spurred by their outrage at this policy. A poll on that page indicates most of those people are not active Mormons.
Mark Naugle, an immigration lawyer, is offering his services to help people remove their names from LDS Church rolls without having to meet with a bishop or attend a disciplinary council. His family resigned from the faith in 2000, when he was 15, and he considered it a painful process. Naugle has found that a letter from a lawyer has bypassed much of that.
He said the resignations are meaningful "because it shows the church that there is dissent."
LDS Church spokesman Eric Hawkins said he hopes these clarifications will lessen that dissent.
"We don't want to see anyone leave the church, especially people who have been struggling with any aspect of their life," he said. "We hope that today's guidance from church leaders and the additional commentary will help provide understanding and context to some who may be considering resigning their membership."
Marie Cornwall, a retired professor from LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University, posted on Facebook that not only has the policy upset her, but the resignations have as well.
"Each resignation is a loss to us all," she said, "no matter how long the inactivity or how deep the disaffection."
Cornwall called on Mormons to hold a day of prayer and fasting Sunday in hopes that "this policy concerning children can be changed and if not, that local leaders are sensitive to its application."
She also urges the church to delay action on resignations for six months to give time for "change, healing and reconciliation."