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As the 16th annual FAIR conference gets underway this week, participants will find the same hot-button topics that Mormon apologists have explored in years past — the role of women in the LDS Church, homosexuality, the exclusion of black men from the faith's all-male priesthood until 1978 and questions about the historicity of the Book of Mormon.

It was, in fact, these issues that prompted a group of Internet-savvy Mormon defenders to launch FAIR, which stands for Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, in 1997.

Several LDS writers, located in various states, found themselves answering the same questions and criticisms over and over. So they pooled their respective research and thinking into one website — — which became the nucleus of FAIR.

These days, though, the conference speakers and participants take a more varied approach, says FAIR President Scott Gordon.

"We have more diversity of thought and opinion in our group," he said. "We have learned quite a bit since we started doing this."

The first conference took place in California, Gordon said, and attracted a mere 11 people. That number steadily grew through the years until now conference organizers are expecting more than 400 attendees for the two-day meeting, which begins Thursday morning in Provo.

"The reality is that in order to defend the church," Gordon said, "we have to understand LDS issues from a variety of perspectives. We have to see where people are struggling and where they might need some additional support. "

That is why so many of this year's speeches seem to reflect current controversies.

For example, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recently published an essay, explaining that Mormon founder Joseph Smith ordained a black man to the faith's priesthood and that the ban on African-Americans holding such authority didn't become fully realized until Brigham Young took the religion's reins.

At the conference, Mormon historian Russell Stevenson, who has just completed a book about black Mormons, will explore the question of how Latter-day Saints can acknowledge that Young was a racist and still revere him as a prophet.

In the wake of the Ordain Women movement and the excommunication of its founder, Kate Kelly, Sharon Eubank, director of LDS Charities, is giving a speech titled "This Is a Woman's Church."

There will also be a panel discussion about what believing Mormons can do when a loved one loses her or his faith.

Ty Mansfield, a marriage and family therapist and president of North Star, a support group for gay Mormons, will speak on being gay in today's LDS Church. Hannah Smith, one of the attorneys on the recent Hobby Lobby case, will talk about what Latter-day Saints need to know to preserve religious liberty.

FAIR also sponsors MormonVoices, a website that responds to public discussions and comments from public figures that misrepresent the Utah-based LDS Church.

Twitter: @religiongal —

16th annual FAIR conference

When • Aug. 7-8.

Where • Utah Valley Convention Center, 220 W. Center St., Provo.

How much • Tickets at the door for the full conference are $64.95. Tickets for one day are $39.95.

More information •