The LDS Church’s controversial 2015 LGBT exclusion policy and its 2019 reversal, the faith’s president said Tuesday, were rooted in the same emotion: love.
“We knew that this policy created concern and confusion for some and heartache for others. That grieved us,” Russell M. Nelson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said in an address broadcast from church-owned Brigham Young University to young adults across the world.
“Whenever the sons and daughters of God weep — for whatever reasons — we weep. So, our supplications to the Lord continued.”
The original policy labeled same-sex Latter-day Saint couples “apostates” and barred the children of LGBT parents from religious rituals, including baptism, without permission from the church’s top officials.
Latter-day Saint leaders reasoned that “because parents are the primary exemplars for their children, we did not want to put young children in the position of having to choose between beliefs and behavior they learned at home and what they were taught at church,” Nelson recalled. “We wanted to facilitate harmony in the home and avoid pitting children and parents against each other.”
They believed the 2015 policy would “assist children and their parents in this circumstance,” he said.
When LGBT parents applied to the First Presidency and “agreed to teach their children about — and be supportive of — the covenant of baptism,” Nelson noted, “the requested exception was granted.”
After much prayer, authorities “felt directed to adjust the policy such that the baptism of children of LGBT parents may be authorized by [lay] bishops without First Presidency approval,” he said, “if the custodial parents request the baptism and understand that a child will be taught about sacred covenants to be made at baptism.”
Further, instead of treating all members in a same-sex relationship as “apostates,” the leaders clarified that “homosexual immorality would be treated in the eyes of the church in the same manner as heterosexual immorality.”
Though it may not have looked like it, Nelson said, the 2015 and 2019 policies “were both motivated by love — the love of our Heavenly Father for his children and the love of the brethren for those whom we serve.”
Nelson did, however, reaffirm the church’s opposition to gay marriage.
Law and love
His comments about the relationship between love and law at Tuesday’s BYU event echoed sentiments about LGBT members expressed by his first counselor, Dallin H. Oaks, in their first news conference after Nelson took the church’s reins in January 2018.
“We have a responsibility to teach love and also the commandments of God and the high destination he has for his children,” Oaks, a former Utah Supreme Court justice, said at the time. “It’s the love of the Lord [balanced with] the law of the Lord.”
Nelson’s Tuesday remarks were part of a speech that focused on God’s immutable truths. In his sermon, the 95-year-old prophet-president described “five truths,” including: that every person is a “son or daughter of God,” “truth is truth,” “God loves everyone … with perfect love,” “prophets and apostles communicate [God’s] love and teach his laws,” and all people “may know for [themselves] what is true and what is not.”
The “arbiter of truth is God,” he said, “not your favorite social media news feed, not Google, and certainly not those who are disaffected from the church.”
Nelson explained the difference between what he described as eternal truths, known by divine revelation, and church policies.
In January 2016, Nelson, who was not yet the faith’s president, described the LGBT exclusion edict as the result of divine revelation to his immediate predecessor, Thomas S. Monson.
After earnest prayer, Nelson said, Monson declared it to reflect “the mind of the Lord and the will of the Lord.”
On Tuesday, the 17th Latter-day Saint president described it as a “policy.”
Though leaders “cannot change the laws of God,” he said, they can “adjust policy when the Lord directs us to do so. … Because the restoration [of the Latter-day Saint gospel] is ongoing, policy changes will surely continue.”
Nelson’s fourth General Conference as president begins Oct. 5, and he already has promised that more announcements will be forthcoming.
Ann Pack, a transgender parent in Syracuse, had mixed feelings about Nelson’s address.
“I’m in a minority group within a minority group,” Pack said. “Just the fact that the president of the church even said ‘transgender’ over the pulpit is a big step in my mind.”
Still, she was disappointed in the message.
“I was hoping for more. More for my friends who are parents of LGBTQ children. More for my LGBTQ brothers and sisters in the church. And more for those who have made the decision to leave for their well-being,” Pack said. “Overall, I was hoping for more love and inclusion instead of restating God’s laws and divine truths.”
On the other hand, Brigit Fehlberg Pack, the straight woman who has been married to Ann Pack for 20 years, felt Nelson’s remarks about the policy and its reversal “were helpful.”
She could tell, Brigit Pack said, “there was a lot of love and care behind it.”
When the revision to the policy came out earlier this year, she said, “I felt a huge weight lifted from my heart … but didn’t fully understand why it had taken so long. Couldn't the First Presidency see the line of faithful gay parents standing with their children waiting for the special covenant of baptism?”
But she also thought it would be hard for the First Presidency to “admit the need for correction,” Brigit Pack said. “These faithful men knew there would be a great backlash when they released this new policy, but they knew it was needed.”
Nathan Kitchen, president of Affirmation, a support organization for LGBTQ Mormons, their families and friends, was fascinated by Nelson’s look “into the process the brethren are undertaking as they wrestle with the heartfelt issues LGBTQ members experience in the church.”
He was intrigued to hear Nelson explain “the lessons they learned” after the institution of the 2015 policy, Kitchen wrote in an email, and how such observations “informed their inquiries to the Lord concerning LGBTQ members, and led to rescinding the policy.”
It sounded to the activist like LGBTQ issues are “still an open topic and they are willing to continue to figure it out.”
On same-sex marriage, however, Nelson’s talk “reinforced in my mind that it will take a revelation on the same scale as Peter’s [biblical] vision concerning the gentiles,” he said. “Until the happens, LGBTQ members need all of our support.”
Calvin Burke, a gay BYU student, understands the pain and hurt the 2015 exclusion policy caused — and mourns for those who can’t find a place within the faith.
But he was heartened to hear Nelson use the term “LGBT,” which seemed to recognize and respect their identities.
Burke was struck, too, by the fact that the catalyst for the policy reversal was “the tears the brethren had shed while reading and learning of LGBT stories.”
That gave the student “enormous hope” that the leaders might be open to dialogue with their LGBTQ members, he said.
It feels like “the dawning of a new era” for the Utah-based faith and its LGBTQ members, Burke said, “one including much more listening, patience, understanding, kindness and further acceptance.”