The Mormon church, responding to activists' demand that a church leader withdraw anti-gay statements, urged its members Tuesday to consider whether their attitudes toward all people — including gays — followed Christian principles.
The Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay civil rights organization, delivered a petition letter carrying 150,000 signatures to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' headquarters, asking leader Boyd K. Packer to retract his statements in an Oct. 3 sermon that same-sex relationships are unnatural and can be overcome.
Packer, 86, is the second-highest ranking Mormon church leader and the next in line for the presidency of the 13.5 million-member faith.
Activists said such rhetoric is harmful, factually inaccurate and can result in the kind of bullying that leads some lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth to attempt suicide. At least four gay teens killed themselves last month across the country after reportedly experiencing anti-gay bullying and harassment.
In an official church statement about an hour after the activists delivered their petition, spokesman Michael Otterson called those deaths tragic.
"We join our voice with others in unreserved condemnation of acts of cruelty, or attempts to belittle or mock any group or individual that is different — whether those difference arise from race, religion, mental challenge, social status, sexual orientation, or for any other reason," Otterson said. "Such actions simply have no place in our society."
Otterson said church history is replete with examples of discrimination against Mormons and that members should be "especially sensitive to the vulnerable in society," including gays.
The statement also reiterated the faith's belief that all sexual relations outside of marriage are wrong and said the church defines marriage as being only between a man and a woman. Since the 1990s, the church has worked to prevent the passage of laws legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide and helped generate millions to fund California's Proposition 8 in 2008.
The three-page statement fell short for activists seeking a reversal and an acknowledgment that same-sex attraction is an immutable human characteristic that cannot be changed.
"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.'"
In his sermon, Packer initially said: "Some suppose that they were born preset 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."
In a transcript of the sermon on the church's website, the word "temptations" has replaced "tendencies" and the question about God's motives has been removed entirely.
Church public relations officials said the changed wording was part of a routine practice that allows conference speakers to edit their speeches to clarify their meaning.
While Packer's remarks have drawn the ire of activists, faithful Latter-day Saints have flooded the social networking site Facebook with messages of support. On Tuesday the "I support Boyd K. Packer" page had nearly 10,000 fans and more than 17,000 Mormon youth had pledged to write Packer a support letter on a second site.