SALT LAKE CITY Mormon leaders unveiled a new website Thursday encouraging church members to be more compassionate in discussions about homosexuality.
Church officials insist they haven't changed the Mormon teaching that marriage is only between a man and a woman and that same-sex relationships are sinful. However, the website includes an appeal to gay and lesbian Mormons to stay in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"Reconciling same-sex attraction with a religious life can present an especially trying dilemma," church leaders wrote on the website. "Anyone who lives in both worlds can attest to its difficulty. But with faith, love and perspective, it can be done."
Mormons faced intense criticism after church leaders helped fund and lead the fight for California's Proposition 8, a constitutional ban on gay marriage that voters adopted in 2008 after the state Supreme Court ruled that gay Californians could marry.
Mormon officials said they were stunned by the backlash from gay activists and from many Mormons who felt the church was wrong to take such a prominent role in favor of the ballot measure. Since then, church leaders in Salt Lake City and elsewhere have been trying to reach out to gays and lesbians to heal tensions.
"We must not judge anyone for the feelings they experience," church authorities wrote, saying homosexuality "should not be viewed as a disease or illness."
The website rarely uses the words "gay" or "lesbian," the terms preferred by the gay community. Instead, the site refers mostly to people "with same-sex attraction" and features testimony from gay Mormon men and women who are not in same-sex relationships.
Still, John Gustav-Wrathall, 49, said it was significant that the site used the term gay or lesbian at all. He was excommunicated from the LDS church in 1986 after revealing to his bishop that he was gay.
"This is huge," said Gustav-Wrathall, who has been with his partner for 20 years. "I don't see any hint of condemnation."
The website, titled "Love One Another: A Discussion on Same-Sex Attraction," states that it reflects the views of the highest authorities of the church.
The site states that gay and lesbian Mormons who are not in same-sex relationships can have `full fellowship in the church," including holding the priesthood and participating in temple rituals a privilege reserved only for church members in good standing. And the church said it would no longer "necessarily advise" gays to "marry those of the opposite sex."
"Same-sex attraction itself is not a sin, but yielding to it is," the website states. "However, through repentance Jesus Christ will offer forgiveness."
Valerie Larabee, executive director of the Utah Pride Center in Salt Lake City, an advocacy and service group for gays and lesbians, called the campaign a step forward.
She said it could reduce the isolation Mormon gays and lesbians feel if church members don't "automatically reject somebody who wants to talk about this." Many gay Mormons say they have been rejected by their families and have left the church.
Still, Larabee said the effort falls far short since the church hasn't changed its opposition to gay and lesbian relationships.
"I'm still hopeful that the church will acknowledge that our marriages should be respected," she said.