SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A top Mormon leader reiterated the church's opposition to gay marriage Saturday during the church's biannual general conference.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' stance on homosexuality has softened in recent years, but this marks the second consecutive conference in which leaders took time to emphasize the faith's insistence that marriage should be limited to unions between a man and a woman, as God created.
"While many governments and well-meaning individuals have redefined marriage, the Lord has not," said Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve. "He designated the purpose of marriage to go far beyond the personal satisfaction and fulfillment of adults, to more importantly, advancing the ideal setting for children to be born, reared and nurtured."
In the October 2013 church conference, Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum said human laws cannot "make moral what God has declared immoral."
The church sent a letter to local leaders that includes that message, Andersen said Saturday. "As the world slips away from the Lord's law of chastity, we do not," he said.
During the first day of the weekend conference, LDS leaders on Saturday also encouraged missionaries to stay strong amid the inevitable personal abuse they will encounter and parents to shelter their children from the damaging effects of pornography.
A demonstration outside an all-male meeting by a Mormon women's group advocating for gender equality was uneventful, despite a contentious lead up to the event.
The conference brings more than 100,000 Latter-day Saints to Salt Lake City to find out church news and soak up words of guidance and inspiration from the faith's top leaders. Thousands more will listen or watch from around the world in 95 languages on television, radio, satellite and Internet broadcasts. More than half of all 15 million Latter-day Saints live outside of the U.S., church figures show.
The conference is widely followed and analyzed on social media, with many using the Twitter hash tag, "#LDSconf."
Gay marriage has been an especially hot topic in Utah since December, when a federal judge overturned Utah's voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage. More than 1,000 gay and lesbian couples married until the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay on marriages pending a ruling from a federal appeals court in Denver. A hearing is set there for Thursday.
Andersen encouraged church members not to buckle under the pressure of a growing movement on social media and elsewhere by advocates who want to make gay marriage legal. He offered the example of a woman who articulated her support for "traditional marriage" on Facebook and refused to take it down despite backlash.
Andersen is a member of the church's Quorum of the Twelve, which is the second-highest governing body of the church. Modeled after Jesus Christ's apostles, the 12 men serve under the church president and his two counselors.
Andersen said church members who "struggle with same-sex attraction" should be of special concern. He said he admires people who confront this "trial of faith and stay true to the commandments of God."
"But everyone, independent of their decisions and beliefs, deserves our kindness and consideration," Andersen said.
The church teaches that while same-sex attraction itself isn't a sin, succumbing to it is.
The church's message on homosexuality has evolved since it was one of the leading forces behind California's Proposition 8, a ban on gay marriage. A website launched last year encouraged more compassion toward gays, implored them to stay in the faith and clarified that church leaders no longer "necessarily advise" gays to marry people of the opposite sex in what used to be a widely practiced Mormon workaround for homosexuality.
In May, church leaders backed the Boy Scouts' policy allowing gays in the ranks. Some gay Mormons who left or were forced out of the church say they are now being welcomed back -- even though they remain in same-sex relationships.
It may seem like negligible progress to outsiders, but Mormon scholars said 2013 was landmark year for the religion on gay and lesbian issues.
Jeffrey Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve delivered a message Saturday directed at the faith's nearly 85,000 missionaries, more than any time in church history.
He relayed the story of a young woman who was spit on and had food thrown at her during her mission by a man who didn't want to hear their message. He highlighted the fact that she resisted the urge to retaliate.
"If you haven't already, you will one day find yourself called upon to defend your faith or even endure some personal abuse," Holland said. "Such moments will require both courage and courtesy on your part."