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A newly published compilation of LDS guidelines — used by all church leaders worldwide when dealing with their members — has softened the language about gay Mormons.

The book, known as the Church Handbook of Instructions, lays out the Utah-based faith's policies on everything from baptism to running a worship service to counseling troubled marriage partners.

The updated reference book is scheduled to be presented to thousands of LDS lay leaders in a giant, televised training session Saturday. Any language changes, then, will set the tone for church interactions for years to come.

Like most recent LDS Church statements, this new handbook makes a clear distinction between same-sex orientation and behavior. It eliminates the suggestion, mentioned in the previous 2006 edition, that same-sex relationships "distort loving relationships" and that gays should repent of their "homosexual thoughts or feelings."

It also says that celibate gay Mormons who are "worthy and qualified in every other way" should be allowed to have "callings," or church assignments, and to participate fully in temple rituals.

The handbook simply repeats what top LDS leaders have been trying to say, but unless they spell it out in explicit terms, many members won't understand, said David Pruden, president of Evergreen International, a support group that helps gay Mormons live by church standards.

Sometimes in the past, when a gay Mormon told his bishop he was struggling with same-sex feelings, the local leader would immediately call a "disciplinary council," Pruden said. "They didn't understand something that was foreign to them."

These members were trying to be faithful to the church and looking for help, he said. Instead they were hurt and punished.

These handbook tweaks, Pruden said, "will bless people by making it easier for them to come forward and will help ecclesiastical leaders understand what the Brethren want them to do."

The changes are "baby steps in the right direction," said Mitch Mayne, an openly gay and active Mormon in the Bay area. "At least the handbook takes the damning terminology out of it."

Mayne, who is writing a book about his experiences as a gay Mormon, worries, though, that all decisions still fall on the local bishop.

"I am hard-pressed to think of a bishop who is equipped to deal with [gay members]," Mayne said. "The standby response is to 'pray out the gay,' and those things don't work."

Nothing will really change, he said, as long as the church continues to equate gayness with the act of sex.

"Homosexuality is no more about sex with the same gender than heterosexuality is about sex with the opposite gender," Mayne said. "It's really about who we are drawn to emotionally and physically and who we want to spend the rest of our lives with."

As long as the church makes homosexuality into a "subversive, taboo thing," Mormon gays will have sex in parks and truck stops, he said. "We wrap being gay in so much shame, and shame brings acting-out behavior."

Duane Jennings, who leads the Utah chapter of Affirmation, a support group for gay Mormons, agrees.

The handbook's changes show "a slight softening on the issue and are commendable," Jennings wrote in an e-mail. "Still, the attitudes are 30 years behind the times when reviewing the scientific research, and [they] continue to ignore the experiences and answers thousands of [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] LDS members have received from their struggle with the Spirit of God. "

What would be wonderful, Jennings said, would be for the LDS Church to support monogamous gay couples like they do heterosexual marriages with the same blessings and responsibilities.

What the Church Handbook of Instructions says

Note: Deletions from past edition have been bolded.

Homosexual behavior violates the commandments of God, is contrary to the purposes of human sexuality, distorts loving relationships, and deprives people of the blessings that can be found in family life and in the saving ordinances of the gospel. Those who persist in such behavior or who influence others to do so are subject to church discipline. Homosexual behavior can be forgiven through sincere repentance.

If members have homosexual thoughts or feelings or engage in homosexual behavior, church leaders should help them have a clear understanding of faith in Jesus Christ, the process of repentance, and the purpose of life on earth. Leaders also should help them accept responsibility for their thoughts and actions and apply gospel principles in their lives.

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