SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Gay rights activists staged a silent protest Thursday outside the headquarters of the Mormon church in Salt Lake City in response to a church leader's remarks that homosexuality is an immoral condition that can and should be overcome.
The sermon by Boyd K. Packer, president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, came Sunday during the 180th semiannual general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City.
In his remarks Packer said some would argue that gays "were pre-set 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?"
Activists nationwide have called Packer's remarks hurtful and say they ostracize gay church members and can lead some to consider or attempt suicide.
On Thursday night, activists dressed in black to symbolize the loss of young, gay Mormons to suicide, activists lay head-to-toe on the sidewalks circling the church's six-block downtown campus.
Police estimated the crowd at roughly 1,000, although organizer Eric Ethington, who runs the blog PrideinUtah, said event staff counted close to 4,500 participants.
"We want to tell men like Boyd K. Packer that we are tired of watching our children die. There are consequences to your words," Ethington said to the crowd to kick off the event. "You cannot change us, we cannot change ourselves and the more you try, the more dead bodies you leave behind. Stop."
Ethington defended Packer's right to express his opinion, but say the church's gay youth also need to hear a message of hope.
"We love you. You are beautiful. You are perfect just the way you are," he said, drawing cheers.
In a statement issued near the end of the rally, church officials said they support the right of groups to voice their opinion in the public square.
"Those familiar with the Church's doctrine on the importance of marriage and family know it is based on principles of respect and love for all of God's children," spokesman Scott Trotter said in the statement. "We have continually emphasized that there is no room in this discussion for hatred or mistreatment of anyone."
A similar statement was issued in the days following Packer's speech, which also defended the faith's stance against gay marriage. Packer, 86, who is next in line for the church's presidency, said those who tolerate or advocate voting for same-sex marriage want to legalize immorality, "as if a vote would somehow alter the designs of God's laws and nature."
The Human Rights Campaign, the largest national civil rights organization for the lesbian, gay, transgender community, has since called for Packer to recant his "inaccurate and dangerous" comments.
In a news release, the group noted that the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association dispute the efficacy of reparative therapies that attempt to alter a person's sexual orientation and said a 2009 study in the medical journal Pediatrics found that telling teens they can change their orientation often increases the likelihood of suicide.
Protest participant Elan Matotek, 26, was raised Mormon and said the messages she heard in church — that homosexual behavior is wrong — were difficult to hear.
"It makes you uncomfortable for people to come out. It makes you feel like less of a person," said Matotek, who attended the protest with her girlfriend, 22-year-old Jasmine Clark. "But, I feel like I am the person I'm supposed to be."
Packer's message — heard by more than 20,000 in the church conference center and millions more through worldwide television, radio and Internet broadcasts — could have far reaching affects on young church members wrestling with their sexuality, Matotek said.
"You know they will listen to him and believe that what they are doing is wrong," she said. "I think it's just wrong. He has power and I think he's using it in the wrong way."
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: www.lds.org