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Washington • The LDS Church says it is not attempting to sway members to support Mitt Romney's presidential bid after an email surfaced suggesting to Mormon leaders in Nevada to register the faithful to vote and named a contact person who appears to support Romney.
"LDS public affairs specialist" Mark Severts last month emailed dozens of southern Nevada stake presidents, each of whom oversees several LDS congregations, encouraging a get-out-the-vote drive for members and saying that those interested should contact Ron and Judy Tobler, according to Jon Ralston, an independent Nevada journalist who formerly worked for the Las Vegas Sun.
Judy Tobler on her Facebook page lists Romney as one of her interests, with a link to his campaign page. She has not donated to the candidate and does not appear to have any formal role in the campaign. She did not respond to a message seeking comment.
It was unclear Monday if Severts was a church employee or volunteer. He lists his job on social media profiles as communications director for NV Energy but the faith does at times enlist local members for public relations work.
The Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been trying to tread carefully in this year's election, conscious of the sensitivities inherent in having one of its members vying for the White House.
Romney is the first Mormon on a major-party presidential ticket.
The LDS Church on Monday dismissed concerns that it was helping Romney, reiterating its neutral stand in the race.
"The church has always encouraged people to be a part of the political process and to register to vote," church spokesman Michael Purdy said in a statement. "However, we do not direct them on how to vote."
Purdy said church members are encouraged to study the issues and the candidates but that there's no official position on the candidates in the race.
"In short, we hope they participate in the political process," Purdy said, "but they will not hear from the church how they should be involved."
That's why it sparked concern among some when the email to local church leaders in Mormon-rich southern Nevada from Severts included a PowerPoint presentation suggested for use in Sunday worship sessions or a special event. Nevada is seen as swing state in the race between Republican Romney and Democratic President Barack Obama.
"You will note that this PowerPoint touches on both encouraging members to vote, as well as helping prepare them for difficult questions posed by their friends, work associates, neighbors, etc.," Severts wrote, according to Ralston, who first reported the message.
"Enclosed is a possible voting registration announcement that can be used or modified to meet your needs," Severts wrote. "You will note that it is formatted to be duplicated as a standard ward bulletin insert [front and back] that can be used to remind members of their responsibility and process to register to vote AND as a teaser for the type of responses to tough questions they can get answered from Mormonism 101."
(The LDS Church's newsroom website has launched a series called "Mormonism 101" to answer frequently asked questions about the church's teachings and what Latter-day Saints believe.)
Should voters need any "support," he added, they should contact the Toblers.
The Romney campaign did not respond to a question about the email.
Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics and a Romney adviser, says both the LDS Church and the Romney campaign have been careful not to cross any lines.
"The LDS Church knows very well its tax status and legal responsibilities and has always steered far clear of the line in engaging in … supporting candidates or parties," Jowers said.
"The criticism has sometimes been that the LDS Church has not engaged as fully as they otherwise may be able and certainly not as much as some of the southern churches do, for example," he said.
The Romney campaign, Jowers says, understands the LDS Church has restrictions and has "protections built in that nothing that even approaches the gray area occurs."
firstname.lastname@example.org The LDS Church's newsroom website includes this statement on political neutrality:
The church's mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, not to elect politicians. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is neutral in matters of party politics. This applies in all of the many nations in which it is established.
The church does not:
Endorse, promote or oppose political parties, candidates or platforms.
Allow its church buildings, membership lists or other resources to be used for partisan political purposes.
Attempt to direct its members as to which candidate or party they should give their votes to. This policy applies whether or not a candidate for office is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Attempt to direct or dictate to a government leader.
The church does:
Encourage its members to play a role as responsible citizens in their communities, including becoming informed about issues and voting in elections.
Expect its members to engage in the political process in an informed and civil manner, respecting the fact that members of the church come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences and may have differences of opinion in partisan political matters.
Request candidates for office not to imply that their candidacy or platforms are endorsed by the church.
Reserve the right as an institution to address, in a nonpartisan way, issues that it believes have significant community or moral consequences or that directly affect the interests of the church.