The conservative Mormon church is not usually considered a gay-friendly religion, and it has been hammered especially hard for its opposition to gay rights since it helped lead the 2008 battle to pass California's Proposition 8, which amended the state constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman.
But comments by a senior Mormon leader on Oct. 3 saying that God does not make people homosexual and that same-sex attractions are "unnatural" and can be changed has ignited an unprecedented firestorm of protest. The remarks were considered particularly hurtful because they came amid national attention over the bullying and suicides of numerous gay teenagers.
As a result, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or LDS -- the formal name for the Mormon religion -- has spent this week trying to douse the controversy sparked by Boyd K. Packer, 86, the second-highest-ranking church leader and the next in line for the presidency of the 13.5 million-member faith.
On Monday the LDS tweaked the official version of Packer's speech to soften the suggestion that homosexuality is not inborn -- studies that it likely is -- and deleted altogether the claim that God would not create people with a homosexual orientation.
Then on Tuesday, just an hour after the nation's largest gay civil rights organization delivered a protest petition
with 150,000 signatures to the LDS headquarters in Salt Lake City, a Mormon spokesman issued a statement denouncing bullying against anyone, including for reasons of sexual orientation, and said Mormons have a special responsibility to be kind to minority groups since Mormons themselves have experienced persecution.
"Our parents, young adults, teens and children should therefore, of all people, be especially sensitive to the vulnerable in society and be willing to speak out against bullying or intimidation whenever it occurs, including unkindness toward those who are attracted to others of the same sex," said LDS spokesman
"This is particularly so in our own Latter-day Saint congregations," he said. "Each Latter-day Saint family and individual should carefully consider whether their attitudes and actions toward others properly reflect Jesus Christ's second great commandment -- to love one another."
The statement also seemed to indicate that the church considers homosexual orientation, or "inclinations," as innate to some degree, and it made no mention of trying to turn gay people into heterosexuals. Instead it said homosexuals should learn to live chastely with their same-sex attractions. "The [Mormon] Church distinguishes between feelings or inclinations on the one hand and behavior on the other. It's not a sin to have feelings, only in yielding to temptation," the statement said, reflecting comments made over the years by other church officials.
The statement also reaffirmed the LDS opposition to gay marriage but it broadened the concern by stressing that "any sexual activity outside of marriage is wrong."
The efforts to tamp down the controversy may not have ended it, however.
For example, Packer supporters started an "I support Boyd K. Packer" fan page
on Facebook, which went from 10,000 members on Tuesday to nearly 16,000 by Wednesday morning, with many praising the Mormon leader for opposing those who "think the moral degradation of our society is acceptable and right."
Meanwhile, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the gay rights lobby that organized the petition demanding a retraction of Packer's remarks, said the LDS statement on Tuesday did not go far enough.
"Unfortunately, the church did not use this golden opportunity to correct the record about their inaccurate and dangerous statements," HRC Vice President of Communications Fred Sainz said in an e-mail to The Associated Press
. "Every human being deserves the God-given right to love and be loved. It's simply not reasonable to say 'don't act on temptations.' "
Many Mormons themselves were upset at Packer's original comments and the message they sent.
The way Packer phrased the question was a "flash point among the membership, not only those paying close attention to issues of homosexuality and gay marriage," Rory Swensen, a Utah businessman and former board member of Sunstone, an issue-oriented Mormon magazine, told The Salt Lake Tribune
. "It rippled out in a way we haven't seen before."
In his speech on Oct. 3 to the General Convention of the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City, Packer's most controversial statement on homosexuals was:
"Some suppose that they were pre-set and cannot overcome what they feel are inborn tendencies toward the impure and unnatural. Not so! Why would our Heavenly Father do that to anyone? Remember he is our father."
When the church posted the official text online, however, the word "temptations" replaced "tendencies" and the remark about God's intent on homosexuals was removed.
LDS spokesman Scott Trotter told the Tribune that convention speakers are always given the opportunity to make "any edits necessary" and that Packer "has simply clarified his intent."
But as the newspaper noted, such substantive changes are rare.
The Mormon church's efforts in recent days are in keeping with actions and statements by some other traditional Christian
groups and leaders who are trying to make their teaching against homosexuality and their lobbying against equal rights for gays mesh with their Christian commitment to treat others with love and kindness.