The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Thursday repealed rules banning baptisms for children of gay parents and making gay marriage a sin eligible for expulsion — marking a reversal of policies condemned as jarring detours from a push by the faith to be more compassionate about LGBTQ issues.
The 2015 rules that were approved by global church leaders had prohibited baptisms for children living with gay parents until the children turned 18 and disavowed same-sex relationships.
With the change, children of gay parents can now be baptized as long as their parents approve the baptisms and acknowledge that the children will be taught church doctrine, the church said in a statement from its highest leadership group called the First Presidency.
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The faith widely known as the Mormon church said in a statement that it is not changing its doctrinal opposition to gay marriage and still considers same-sex relationships to be a "serious transgression."
But people in same-sex relationships will no longer be considered "apostates" who can be kicked out of the religion, the statement said. That label given to same-sex couples in the 2015 policy was widely condemned by LGBTQ members and allies as being demeaning and hurtful to people who already struggle to find acceptance in the faith.
"The very positive policies announced this morning should help affected families," church leaders said in the statement. "In addition, our members' efforts to show more understanding, compassion and love should increase respect and understanding among all people of goodwill. We want to reduce the hate and contention so common today."
The faith that counts 16 million members worldwide did not apologize for putting the previous policy in place.
Troy Williams with the LGBT-advocacy group Equality Utah called the announcement a big step forward for the faith.
"Clearly this is a great development for the church," he said. "I think this will go a long way toward healing Latter-day Saint families that have LGBT members."
Erika Munson, co-founder of the group Mormons Building Bridges that advocates for LGBTQ members of the faith, said there's a "great feeling of being heard" because the change came after an outcry from church members, including a public mass resignation by several hundred people shortly after it was announced.
"We saw the church correct a mistake in record time," Munson said. "Usually these things take maybe 100 years or more."
But emotional trauma caused by the policy still lingers, said Lisa Dame, a member of a mothers group called "Mama Dragons" that advocates for parents with LGTBQ members of the faith.
Dame said the policy did not affect large numbers of church members, but carried an implicit unwelcoming message. She is a heterosexual Mormon who has five children, including a 33-year-old daughter who is a lesbian.
"Especially in the LGBTQ community that are Mormon, it was like a bomb had gone off," Dame said. "There would have been so much more healing to have had an apology that acknowledged the damage."
The change marks the biggest move yet by church President Russell M. Nelson, who became the leader of the faith in January 2018 and has made a flurry of changes to how the church functions since taking over, including a campaign to eradicate well-known nicknames for the faith and severing the faith's longstanding ties with the Boy Scouts of America.
The announcement came two days before Saturday's twice-yearly church conference in Salt Lake City. It was unknown if church leaders will speak more about the changes during the two-day conference, where church leaders give speeches about spirituality and sometimes unveil new church initiatives.
The move marks a reset for the faith on LGBTQ issues, undoing the one major detour from a decade-long path by the faith to carve out a more open and compassionate position on LGBTQ issues while sticking to doctrinal opposition of gay marriage and intimacy between people in same-sex relationships, said, Patrick Mason, a religion professor at Claremont Graduate University in California who studies the faith.
"That policy always seemed out of step," Mason said.
The policy triggered displeasure and protests from liberal and conservative members alike and hurt the church's image from within, Mason said.
"That struck a nerve with people, even with longtime, faithful otherwise conservative and orthodox members," Mason said.
The change announced Thursday shows that church leaders "are in fact responsive to people's concerns," he said.
Faith leaders had previously explained that the 2015 rules were designed to protect kids by not putting them in a potential tug-of-war between the beliefs of same-sex couples raising them and teachings and activities at church.
Nelson, then a member of a governing body that helps the president lead the church, defended the policy in a 2016 speech in which he said a revelation received by then-President Thomas S. Monson and other leaders gave them "spiritual confirmation" that the rules were the right thing to do after many states legalized gay marriage.
Church leaders said in the statement that the change reversing the 2015 decisions was made after "fervent, united prayer to understand the will of the Lord on these matters."
The speed at which church leaders and Nelson, in particular, changed course on this topic was rare and surprising, said Matthew Bowman, an associate professor of history at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas who studies the faith.
"It seems to indicate that ultimately they decided it was doing more harm than good," Bowman said.