SALT LAKE CITY — Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said Friday night that the church's updated policies about same-sex couples and their children are designed to be clear and to protect children from conflict.

The changes to a church handbook released Thursday mandate church discipline for same-sex couples who marry and grew out of questions that came from different parts of the world and the United States, Elder Christofferson said in a video posted on the Mormon Newsroom website.

"We recognize that same-sex marriages are now legal in the United States and some other countries," he said, "and that people have the right if they choose to enter into those, and we understand that, but that's not a right that exists in the church. That's the clarification."

He said the new policy restricting children of same-sex couples from baptism until they are 18 originated from "a desire to protect children in their innocence and in their minority years."

"We don't want the child to have to deal with issues that might arise where the parents feel one way and the expectations of the church are very different," he said.

Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released the new policies on Thursday morning in an online update to Handbook 1, a book of instructions to local lay leaders who run Mormon congregations. Church leaders sent a message to area authorities about the update Thursday morning and instructed them to alert stake presidents, who then were to inform bishops that a new version of the handbook is available.

The update affirmed one of the church's fundamental doctrines, that marriage is between a man and a woman. It also clarified that entering a same-sex marriage is considered apostasy and requires a church disciplinary council. The update states that homosexual relations, especially sexual cohabitation, are serious transgressions for which a disciplinary council may be necessary.

Church leaders also added a new section to Handbook 1 to provide guidance to lay leaders about "children of a parent living in a same-gender relationship." The section instructs local leaders that those children cannot receive baby blessings or baptism.

Social media was alight Thursday night and Friday as self-described faithful Latter-day Saints expressed concern that the policies focused on the children of same-sex couples seemed unusual, harsh or harmful. These instructions, however, are consistent with other church practices and policies developed over decades that seek to protect prospective members, their families and the church. The policy changes released Thursday are meant to protect family relationships, Elder Christofferson said, not to limit the opportunities for children in the church.

Instead, the goal is to protect children, he said, so "they're not placed in a position where there will be difficulties, challenges, conflicts that can injure their development in very tender years."

Baby blessing

Experts say such conflict is bad for family harmony and the long-term spiritual journeys of children.

"Discord in the home is disruptive in terms of the socialization of a child into a religion," said Kevin Dougherty, a sociology professor at Baylor University. "The highest probability of an individual choosing to follow the faith of parents is when both parents are actively engaged in the same faith perspective and that they model that and envelop the child into those beliefs and practices themselves. If anything disrupts that, the outcome is a lot lower probability for a child to take that faith perspective."

The example of the baby blessing highlighted the issue. In the LDS Church, giving an infant a formal name and blessing is an ordinance that places the name of the infant on formal church records of the church and begins a life-long series of church-related actions, events and expectations, Elder Christofferson said. For example, once a baby is blessed and becomes a child of record, she is assigned home teachers and visiting teachers. That could create awkward situations and tension between parents and children as practicing Latter-day Saints visit the home and teach. Eventually, the child would learn that his parents in same-sex relationship have chosen a life contrary to the church's most basic doctrines.

Also, the congregation's bishop shares the responsibility with the parents of seeing that a “child of record” progresses toward baptism and ultimately is baptized. The new policy is designed to refrain from injecting undue pressure or influence from the church into the relationship children have with their parents.

That would violate a basic church tenet. Church leaders consider the family the center core and most sacred institution of the church. LDS prophets and apostles always have taught local church leaders to avoid policies and practices that would interfere with the family leadership of a father and a mother, who are to raise their children with the church in support.

Baptism is generally available to children at age 8. It is a considered a serious covenant, a bond or agreement with God, and it is the first of several on what church leaders in recent years have begun to call a "covenant path" through life that includes acceptance of church doctrine, including the doctrine of marriage. One of the culminating covenants is the covenant made together by a man and a woman when they are sealed in an eternal marriage solemnized in an LDS temple.

The new policy released Thursday said a natural or adopted child of a parent living in a same-gender relationship may be baptized, confirmed, ordained or recommended for missionary service only once the child reaches 18, no longer lives with a parent who has lived or is living in a same-gender relationship and "the child accepts and is committed to live the teachings and doctrine of the Church, and specifically disavows the practice of same-gender cohabitation and marriage."

The First Presidency must approve a request for those covenants and ordinances.

Longstanding precedents

The new policies are similar to multiple church policies and practices regarding baptism. For example, no child between 8 and 18 may be baptized without parental approval. No spouse can be baptized without the consent of the wife or husband. The church has declined to baptize many Muslims because doing so would put them in danger for leaving their faith either under interpretations of Islamic law or family culture. Similar restrictions have been in place in countries where governments have implemented strict laws.

Another example is the church's own self-imposed constraints on missionary work in several areas of the world. In Africa today, the church is growing rapidly in several countries, but missionaries are restricted to proselyting in certain urban areas where the church has strong leaders and structure. In 1999, late LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley instructed missionaries in South America to focus on reactivation and retention of new converts instead of baptizing as many as possible.

Thursday's clarification also is parallel to the LDS policy that a man or a woman who joins a polygamous marriage is subject to church discipline, Elder Christofferson said. Children of polygamist families cannot receive church ordinances until they are 18 and disavow polygamy.

The new policies do not change several developments in the church regarding lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people.

Elder Christofferson and other church leaders have said repeatedly that Mormons may express political support for same-sex marriage without consequence to their church membership. The updated policy does not alter that.

The church also continues to support the Utah Compromise and all similar efforts to provide legal protection for LGBT people in housing and employment.

LDS leaders also have repeatedly said, as can be found on the official church website, that nobody should be more loving and compassionate than Mormons, who should be "in the forefront in terms of expressing love, compassion and outreach." Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Twelve said LDS families also are instructed not exclude or be disrespectful of those who choose a different lifestyle.

Gays affirmed the church's right to maintain its religious doctrine but described the announcement of the policies as painful.

"I've felt a deep sadness," said John Gustav-Wrathall, a member of the board of directors of Affirmation, a support group for LGBT Mormons and former Mormons and their families, friends and church leaders. After praying Friday he felt a profound peace and love envelop him and his husband, but he still was trying to "understand why the new handbook is going to treat children the way it does."

The handbook policy requires children of same-sex parents who want to join the church or serve missions to disavow same-sex marriage. Some have misread the policy to say they must disavow their parents.

"I've known a number of gay parents who have supported their children on missions, who have supported their children in being active in the church, in going to seminary," Gustav-Wrathall said. "After having supported their missionary kids, to learn their kids have been told to disavow them is extremely painful."

Some characterized the new policies as a step back or a retrenchment at the end of a year when church leaders announced their unequivocal support for legislation protecting LGBT people from discrimination in housing and employment in January and joined the celebration in March when the Utah Compromise did just that. Then last month, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Twelve called for an end to the culture wars.

"I disagree with the idea this is a retrenchment," Gustav-Wrathall said. "I honestly believe the church has moved forward in terms of its engagement with us as human beings, as members of families, as members of wards. There is a deeper, more profound understanding. There has been more explicit talk from the highest levels of the church about love and about acceptance and about listening. My perception is that members of the church are taking that seriously."

The bottom line, he said, is that LDS doctrine is changed by revelation, not by church leaders.

"As painful as this is, it may actually be a good thing, because it's clarifying what the nature of the problem is. There is a common belief among some gay Mormons that bishops will just stop excommunicating people for this and gradually the church will edge its way to a general acceptance and understanding. I've always felt it couldn't be resolved that way. What this has done has made the fundamental gap between our experiences and the doctrine much more visible. It's not something we can really avoid or ignore."

Elder Christofferson said it is mandatory for church leaders to be loving and to maintain standards.

"We're not going to yield on our efforts to help people find what brings happiness, but we know that sin does not," he said. "And so we're going to stand firm there, because we don't want to mislead people. There's no kindness in misdirecting people and leading them into any misunderstanding about what is true, what is right, what is wrong, what leads to Christ and what leads away from Christ."