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Stacie Scott
People gather by the Temple Square reflecting pool during the morning session of the 185th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Oct. 4, 2015.

SALT LAKE CITY — The First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a letter Friday to church leaders clarifying how recent, high-profile changes in church handbook policies affect same-sex couples and their children.

The church shared the 270-word letter on lds.org along with a lengthier essay by the head of church public affairs about understanding the handbook and the faith's concern for children.

The First Presidency letter clarified that a new policy that restricts church leaders from giving priesthood ordinances like baby blessings and baptism to children of same-sex parents applies only to those children whose primary residence is with a same-sex couple.

"Our concern with respect to children is their current and future well-being and the harmony of their home environment," stated the letter, signed by LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson and his counselors, President Henry B. Eyring and President Dieter F. Uchtdorf. "The provisions of Handbook 1,Section 16.13, that restrict priesthood ordinances for minors, apply only to those children whose primary residence is with a couple living in a same-gender marriage or similar relationship. As always, local leaders may request further guidance in particular instances when they have questions."

The letter clarified that children who already have been baptized and are active in the church but are living with same-gender couples can continue to receive priesthood ordinances. Local leaders are authorized to make decisions based on the preparation and best interests of each child.

The update affirmed one of the faith's core doctrines, that marriage is between a man and a woman. It clarified that the decision to enter a same-sex marriage or relationship is considered direct opposition to that doctrine and therefore an act of apostasy that mandates a church disciplinary council.

The letter also stated: "Revealed doctrine is clear that families are eternal in nature and purpose. We are obligated to act with that perspective for the welfare of both adults and children. The newly added Handbook provisions affirm that adults who choose to enter into a same-gender marriage or similar relationship commit sin that warrants a church disciplinary council."

The letter was addressed to all LDS general authorities; area seventies; general auxiliary presidencies; stake, district, mission and temple presidencies; bishops and branch presidents.

The church initially announced online update to "Handbook 1: Stake Presidents and Bishops" in a Nov. 5 letter to area leaders.

The update added the new section titled "children of a parent living in a same-gender relationship." The section instructed local leaders that those children cannot receive baby blessings and may not be baptized until they are 18 and disavow same-sex marriage and cohabitation. They also must disavow same-sex marriage to serve a mission, which would require them to teach the church's doctrine about marriage.

The policy changes grew out of questions senior church leaders were getting from local leaders around the world, Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said in a videotaped statement released on Friday.

"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," Elder Christofferson said.

The video has been viewed by millions, said Michael Otterson, managing director of the church's public affairs department, in the essay posted on lds.org on Friday.

Otterson said the Nov. 5 letter and Handbook 1 are instructional documents to local leaders that understandably lack the context of a broader church communications. When they became public, they prompted questions from church members who read media headlines that portrayed the instructions as "a rejection of children and refusal to name babies."

"The episode demonstrates clearly the dangers of drawing conclusions based on incomplete news reports, tweets and Facebook posts without necessary context and accurate information," Otterson wrote.

The church does not consider it a sin to feel attraction to another person of the same sex. Faithful members with those attractions serve Mormon missions and attend LDS temples. The church does consider sexual relations with people of the same sex sinful.

The legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States and other nations created the need to draw a firm line in Handbook 1 to encourage consistency among local leaders, Otterson said.

Otterson said modern society tends to represent Jesus Christ "as if his teachings on love were somehow inconsistent with his teachings on divine commandments. Of course the Savior’s love was never withheld from anyone and His words on the cross exemplify that. But, he also expressed love by teaching clear doctrine and standing firmly against sin with sometimes-tough lessons for which people rejected him."

LDS Church leaders are doing the same, he said, holding a firm doctrinal position of right and wrong while extending love to all people.

"Church members who believe in modern prophets and apostles understand and appreciate the intent of their leaders to guide the church through the complexities of diverse societies and rapidly changing social circumstances."

Gay Mormons appreciated Friday's clarifications.

"I am grateful for the church leadership's efforts to provide clarifications on the new policy," said Randall Thacker in an email to the Deseret News. Thacker is president of Affirmation, a support group for LGBT Mormons and former Mormons and their families, friends and church leaders. "It will reduce a lot a stress on those children who are already baptized and actively participating in church and their parents. We had already heard of stories of such individuals who were being told they would not be able to receive the priesthood, serve a mission, etc. It will also immediately reduce the difficulties for children whose primary residence is not with their gay parents."

Thacker said there are gay Mormon couples who desire to raise their children in the church and worried that the new policy and clarification will push them away.

"I do not believe this is the church's intent but it becomes the perception and then becomes the reality. As for me, I hope to still have children and had planned on raising them in the church. I do not believe there would be an issue with a lack of harmony between my home and the church."

The policy changes sparked widespread national conversation. Some have been understanding while others have been critical.

Critics of the the new policies said they hurt children and asked for clarification. Two petitions gained a limited following. One asked the guest performers to cancel their appearances at the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's annual Christmas concerts on Dec. 18 and 19. The second asked NCAA schools to boycott games against BYU, the church's flagship university.

Harvard constitutional law professor Noah Feldman wrote a Bloomberg View opinion piece that said the LDS Church's position is understandable based on its history and doctrine.

"There’s a clear internal logic at work," Feldman wrote.

On one hand, LDS teaching emphasizes obedience to the law, he said, so the church has made peace with the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage by rejecting the civil disobedience of Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, helped pass a Utah bill that protects gay people from discrimination in housing and employment and maintained its ties to the Boy Scouts of America.

Meanwhile, Feldman added, Mormons are proud to maintain distinct religious beliefs, and the church continues to grow.

The Wall Street Journal's Tamara Audi said the policy clarifications and changes "illuminate the church’s complicated path in its 'fairness for all' approach that attempts to separate its teaching (doctrine) from its politics."

Email: twalch@deseretnews.com