updated 6/28/2008 7:20:13 PM ET 2008-06-28T23:20:13

Lester Leavitt has made a request of his family: oppose their church's opposition to gay marriage.

Leavitt, from Pompano Beach, Fla., is asking his siblings and children on the West Coast to choose family over a call from Mormon church leaders to support a November ballot initiative to define traditional marriage California's constitution.

A letter from Thomas S. Monson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was to be read from the pulpit in church congregations Sunday.

Since the letter began circulating on the Web last weekend, hundreds of Mormon blog posts have expressed disbelief, disappointment and outrage at the church's decision to wade into politics.

Being gay and Mormon
A lifelong Mormon who came out as a gay man in 2004, Leavitt wants his California relatives to walk out when Monson's letter is read.

"I thought by asking my family to do this, I was simply asking them to send a strong message to Salt Lake City that they disagree with the idea that any church has the right to entrench clearly religious dogma into the constitution of a state or country," he wrote in a letter posted on an Internet discussion group called q-saints. "I was just asking them to defend my civil rights."

Leavitt has worked as an activist on behalf of gay Mormons and has weathered an excommunication attempt. He said Monson's letter was a disappointing last straw and sent a certified letter to the church's Salt Lake City headquarters asking to have his name removed from the rolls.

"I wanted to remain a cultural Mormon," Leavitt, 44, said Thursday. "I thought there was a way, an opening up, but then all of a sudden, the church decides this ... and I'm not going to wait around."

Officially, the Mormon church teaches that homosexual sex is a sin, although celibate gays can remain active in church callings and activities. Since the 1990s the church has been politically active in defeating same-sex marriage initiatives nationwide, including asking its members to vigorously help pass California's Proposition 22 in 2000, which prohibited California from legally recognizing gay marriages performed outside the state.

Subtle shift in position
But over the past five years the church had appeared to undergo a subtle shift in position.

Leaders have been more silent and limited the church's activism to filing legal briefs and a signature on a 2006 letter to congress supporting a federal marriage amendment.

In addition, the rhetoric around what the church calls same-gender attraction had softened, and Latter-day Saints have been encouraged to encircle gay members with love and compassion.

Even a short statement of disappointment after last month's California's Supreme Court decision to legalize gay marriage was mild.

"Maybe I was just optimistic. I thought they might sit on the sidelines and not have any bad press," said Matt Thurston, a 39-year-old Mormon from Corona, Calif., who is not gay.

Although Monson's letter states that the faith's "unequivocal" moral position that marriage between a man and a woman is an institution ordained by God seems to indicate no change of heart by leaders, many wonder whether the general membership will rally to political participation with the same fervor as in 2000.

"There is that culture of obedience that once the proclamation has been raised, that's it," said Jeffrey Nielsen, a professor of philosophy who was ousted from the church-owned Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, in 2006 after criticizing the church's position on gay marriage in a newspaper column.

'Freedom to live their life'
At the same time, Mormonism preaches that God blesses each person with the agency to make his or her own decisions, and some may not surrender that freedom so easily, Nielsen said.

In a letter to his fellow Mormons submitted to several California newspapers, Nielsen wrote:

"A growing number of active Mormons, who have gay friends and family members are coming to the conclusion that our current leaders are as mistaken in promoting discrimination against gays and lesbians as was the Mormon hierarchy in the 60's when they opposed equal rights for people of color, and our Mormon leaders in the 70's when they opposed full legal equality for women.

"No one is asking that you condone a behavior that might violate your religious faith, but we need to allow everyone the freedom to live their life as they see fit."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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