SALT LAKE CITY -- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints launched a new website on Thursday calling for greater compassion for members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
The website, "Love One Another: A Discussion on Same Sex Attraction," makes it clear where the Mormon Church stands on issues surrounding homosexuality. But mormonsandgays.org also encourages more acceptance of those who do not believe as Latter-day Saints do. The website was met with mixed reaction from Utah's LGBT community.
On the website, the LDS Church insisted its position on same sex attraction has not changed. The church preaches that sexual activity should only be between a man and a woman. One can be gay and a member of the Mormon faith in good standing, so long as they remain celibate.
"What is changing and what needs to change is to help our own members and families understand how to deal with same gender attraction," Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said in a video on the site.
The site includes a number of videos from LDS leaders and faithful members "who are attracted to people of the same sex, and conversations with the loved ones of gay spouses, children, or grandchildren who are dealing with the effects of same-sex attraction in their own lives."
Church observers noticed some significant changes to the LDS Church's previous pronouncements on homosexuality. At the top of the site is an acknowledgment that sexuality is not a choice:
The experience of same-sex attraction is a complex reality for many people. The attraction itself is not a sin, but acting on it is. Even though individuals do not choose to have such attractions, they do choose how to respond to them. With love and understanding, the Church reaches out to all God’s children, including our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.
"That position is not as straight forward as the American Psychiatric Association's position, but it's pretty clear that they are beginning to accept this understanding that your sexuality is not a choice and certainly not always a choice," said Jan Shipps, a religious studies professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, who studies Mormonism.
The website also said the LDS Church also no longer encourages gay and lesbian members to marry someone of the opposite sex:
Unlike in times past, the Church does not necessarily advise those with same-sex attraction to marry those of the opposite sex. Same-sex attraction itself is not a sin, but yielding to it is. However, through repentance Jesus Christ will offer forgiveness.
Addressing gay Mormons, Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to "stay with us."
"Let’s work together on this and find friendship and commonality and brotherhood and sisterhood, here more than anywhere. It’s important that there be love, and that there be hope. Love is not to say acceptance or endorsement, but it is to say inclusion and not ostracism. We want to be with you and work together," he said.
The site also encourages LDS members to be more accepting of gay people.
"As a church, nobody should be more loving and compassionate. Let us be at the forefront in terms of expressing love, compassion and outreach. Let’s not have families exclude or be disrespectful of those who choose a different lifestyle as a result of their feelings about their own gender," said Elder Quentin L. Cook, another member of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
The website comes in the aftermath of protests and sharp criticism of the LDS Church and leaders' prior statements on homosexuality, as well as the church's opposition to same-sex marriage. Mormon Church members were heavily involved in California's Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage there. But in the last election, the church was noticeably absent from marriage equality battles in Washington, Maryland and Maine.
Openly gay state senator Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, was among a handful of members of Utah's LGBT community who engaged in a series of dialogues with LDS Church representatives following Proposition 8. He said Thursday he was "encouraged" by the website.
"I think doctrinal issues are doctrinal issues, but the recognition and communication and the church's saying, 'We want everybody in every ward, in every stake, to know we support our gay and lesbian members' is the kind of thing that will only make life better," Dabakis told FOX 13.
Valerie Larabee, the director of the Utah Pride Center, said the church's new statements were promising.
"If it (the website) does what I hope it will do is increase the conversation in families and decrease the amount of rejection," she said, referring to youth kicked out onto the streets after coming out of the closet.
But others were more critical, pointing to the "love the sinner, hate the sin" approach by the church.
"Yes, it is still packed with deeply offensive language to the LGBTQ community. No doubt," wrote gay rights activist Troy Williams. "It’s exasperating to hear that it’s okay to be gay as long as we don’t do gay. It’s an insensitive argument that belongs in the last century. But the website also has many positive elements. Let’s acknowledge both."