An LDS official and 49 religious leaders from around the country have signed a letter that calls for a U.S. constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman.

Members of Utah's gay and lesbian community called the letter, written on behalf of the Religious Coalition for Marriage, a political "distraction" and hurtful.

Elder Russell M. Nelson, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, signed on behalf of the LDS Church. The letter is intended to help sway the U.S. Senate, which is expected to vote in June on a resolution that calls for the marriage amendment.

The LDS Church joined other religious bodies and leaders in signing the letter "to protect and preserve the institution of marriage between a man and a woman," according to a church statement on its Web site at www.lds.org.

The statement went on to advise LDS Church members to be civil and respectful of each other when participating in public debate on moral, social and political issues that can become "divisive."

LDS Church spokesman Dale Bills declined comment Monday. Bills referred questions to the church's statement on its Web site.

While only one of 50 signatures on the letter was an LDS leader, 16 were Catholic bishops and archbishops.

The large turnout for the Catholic Church follows a vote last month by the Administrative Committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to reaffirm its support of a federal marriage amendment. In 2003 the committee issued the statement, "Promote, Preserve, Protect Marriage."

The LDS Church has previously aired its opinion on marriage in the document "The Family: A Proclamation to the World." Read publicly in 1995 by LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley, the proclamation says, "Marriage between a man and a woman is essential to his eternal plan" and that children should be reared by a father and mother.

The recent letter from religious leaders is posted at www.religiouscoalitionformarriage.org. The letter is intended to sway the Senate in favor of the resolution for the "Marriage Protection Amendment."

The resolution calls for a constitutional amendment that would provide a national definition of marriage. The Senate is expected to vote a second time on the resolution June 6. The resolution passed the House but failed once before in the Senate. Approval by the Senate would send the resolution to voters for a final say.

"We are convinced that this is the only measure that will adequately protect marriage from those who would circumvent the legislative process and force a redefinition of it on the whole of our society," the letter reads.

Signatures on the letter include leaders from the Baptist, Episcopal, Greek Orthodox and Lutheran churches, two rabbis and officials from religious groups like Focus on the Family, led by founder James Dobson. A complete list of signers is posted on the Web site for the Religious Coalition for Marriage.

A federal amendment would echo what took place in Utah in 2004, when 66 percent of voters passed Amendment 3, which changed the Utah Constitution to specifically ban gay marriages.

Utah's only gay state senator, Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake, said the recent letter is an attempt by Republicans to rescue their "pitiful" place in the polls right now by pandering to their right-wing, religious-fundamentalist base.

"Honestly, that's what this is about," McCoy said Monday. "This is an attempt at electoral distraction."

McCoy added that for every church represented on the letter, there is a faction of that church that believes the exact opposite.

Inactive LDS members Millie and Gary Watts co-chair Family Fellowship, a support and education group for an estimated 1,700 LDS families with gay and lesbian members. The Watts are parents of six children, including a gay son and lesbian daughter.

"I feel badly that the (LDS) church has to again re-emphasize its belief that marriage is between a man and a woman," Millie Watts said. "It hurts. It may unite other families, but it hurts my family."

Rather than frown upon gay relationships, Watts would like to see society and its churches spend more time on encouraging monogamy and helping to fortify relationships, gay or otherwise.

Valerie Larabee, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center, said she wasn't surprised by the recent letter. "I wish that we would pay more attention to helping people than hurting people," she said.

Larabee said the letter contributes toward gay and lesbian people not being treated equally. "If you alter the Constitution," she added, "you're not going to have equality."


E-mail: sspeckman@desnews.com