The LDS Church's First Presidency issued a statement Tuesday saying the church "favors measures that define marriage as the union of a man and a woman and that do not confer legal status on any other sexual relationship."
The statement by the governing body of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints comes two weeks before Utah voters will decide whether to amend the state's constitution to define marriage as the "legal union between a man and a woman" and to prevent any other domestic union from being "recognized as a marriage or given the same or substantially equivalent legal effect."
The latest pronouncement expands on a previous statement in which the First Presidency said the church supported a constitutional amendment to preserve traditional marriage but did not include a reference to other sexual relationships. That statement came in July, shortly before the U.S. Senate failed to vote on a proposed federal amendment to ban gay marriage.
LDS Church spokesman Michael Otterson declined to "elaborate at this time" on Tuesday's statement. Utah is among 11 states where voters will soon decide whether to constitutionally define marriage.
While the latest statement did not specifically endorse Amendment 3, some observers said the statement is akin to approval of the marriage measure that will be on Utah's Nov. 2 ballot. Others said the church stopped short because the second part of Amendment 3's potential impact would reach beyond sexual relationships.
The statement acknowledged "understanding and respect for individuals who are attracted to those of the same gender" but said "the powers of procreation are to be exercised only between a man and a woman lawfully wedded as husband and wife."
The statement said any sexual relationships outside of marriage "undermine the divinely created institution of the family."
"I think it's probably about as strong as it gets," said Quin Monson, assistant political science professor at Brigham Young University. "In terms of an endorsement, this is pretty clear."
Monte Stewart, co-chairman of Utahns for a Better Tomorrow, one of four campaigns supporting the amendment, said, "I believe that Amendment 3 is in full harmony with the church's stated position.
"In terms of the last half of the sentence, the church's statement is particularly important because we have been trying to educate voters that Amendment 3 prescribes only those arrangements legally defined by their sexual nature."
But Scott McCoy, campaign manager for the Don't Amend Alliance against the amendment, said, "Amendment 3 goes beyond the church's endorsement."
He said the church's statement appeared to oppose recognizing relationships such as civil unions in Vermont or domestic partnerships in California. But McCoy contends the amendment would go beyond that, possibly preventing the recognition of any legal documents between unmarried couples such as wills or powers of attorney.
"Even in light of the church's new statement, fair-minded and reasonable Utahns can believe in that goal," McCoy said. "Let's make the Legislature actually give us an amendment that preserves traditional marriage and doesn't hurt people or cost taxpayer money."
In an unexpected move last summer, GOP Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and his opponents, Democrat Greg Skordas and Libertarian Andrew McCollough, issued a joint statement opposing Amendment 3, expressing concerns that the proposed amendment could affect more than same-sex couples.
In reacting to the church's latest statement, Paul Murphy, spokesman for the Attorney General's Office, said Shurtleff has "already expressed his constitutional and legal concerns about the second part of Amendment 3."
"He supports an amendment that would legally define a marriage between a man and a woman, which is consistent with the statement by the LDS Church."
Not everyone is convinced that the church's statement amounts to an endorsement of Amendment 3.
"It just leaves me hopelessly confused in how the church stands," said J.D. WIlliams, retired University of Utah professor of political science.
"The second part of the church's statement is gobbledygook. . . . Are they for or against it?," said Williams, who is opposed to Amendment 3.
Monson said the statement will get the attention of "active Mormons who make up a large portion of the electorate."
He said the weight of the church's current statement could be compared to a previous issue in which the church clearly stated its position a pari-mutuel betting amendment proposed in 1992.
The LDS Church has always opposed gambling, and during the horse-betting debate, the church came out specifically against allowing any type of gambling in Utah. The proposed amendment, which was never leading in the polls, went down in a significant defeat.
Opinion polls taken before Tuesday's statement indicate that most Utahns, especially those who identified themselves as "very active" LDS, support the marriage amendment.
The most recent Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV poll showed that 64 percent of Utah voters supported the measure. However, when asked about the amendment's two parts separately, only 46 percent said they "strongly support" the second part, which would prevent any other domestic union from being recognized as a marriage.
Monson said by encompassing Utah's full amendment, the statement's "measurable effect would be on folks on the fence. This will get them off the fence."
Senate Majority Whip John Valentine, R-Orem, who supports Amendment 3, acknowledged the similarities to the pari-mutuel betting amendment. So does House Speaker Marty Stephens, R-Farr West. However both declined to speculate on what the church's statement could mean to Amendment 3.
Valentine said it is appropriate for the LDS Church to make the new statement, which he said appears as a backhanded endorsement of the amendment.
The timing of the statement, two weeks before the vote, is "extremely important for the debate on the amendment," Valentine said. The church "has consistently made statements on moral issues like the family, alcohol, tobacco and pari-mutuel betting. This new statement is consistent with that concern about moral issues."
Stephens said most Utahns he's talked to "have already made up their minds" on Amendment 3. And the church's statement likely won't change that."I support Amendment 3. And so I welcome (the church's) general comments on this issue."
Contributing: Bob Bernick Jr.