SALT LAKE CITY — Standing up for traditional marriage when chosen to appear before the New Zealand Parliament late last year was one of the hardest things Angela Fallentine, a Mormon, has ever done.
Members of Parliament sat in the front, other presenters said little on behalf of families or religion, and news cameras bored in on her. The presentations by Fallentine and her husband earned no obvious support from the audience.
But Fallentine also felt standing up for traditional marriage was one of the easiest things she's done because she and her husband were defending their beliefs and relying on "The Family: A Proclamation to the World," the 1995 proclamation made by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
A few months later, Fallentine became a co-founder of a new LDS women's Facebook group called "Mormon Women Stand," a social media haven for "LDS women who, without hesitation, sustain the Lord's prophet, the Family Proclamation as doctrine and our divine role as covenant women for Christ," according to its mission statement.
The group quickly gained traction, earning an average of nearly 500 Facebook likes a day in the three weeks since the page launched March 10. Now the women behind the Facebook page are gearing up to provide their take on the church's 184th Annual General Conference, with sessions Saturday and Sunday.
In a phone interview Wednesday from her home in Tauranga, N.Z., Fallentine said her experience with the New Zealand Parliament "solidified for me the need for people to be able to feel safe in standing for what they believe in, in this case for the doctrine and leaders of the LDS Church. I've had so many people say: 'Your story has given me courage. If you can speak to many, I can speak to maybe a few and defend my standards and my values.' "
She said that was a catalyst for starting Mormon Women Stand.
"I think people are afraid," said Fallentine, who is from Sterling, Alberta, Canada, studied at BYU and Utah State University and has worked for the church. "There's a fear to speak publicly because there is so much negativity and backlash on the Internet for those who do. So this provides a safe place that's very positive, where we can talk about social issues in line with the doctrine of the LDS Church and defending the prophets and apostles."
Fallentine and others among the more than a dozen women from around the world who work together on the Facebook page say they celebrate the role of women in the church.
Jelaire Richardson, a Mormon mother of three young children and a ward missionary, said she and her husband, who is their congregation's mission leader, visit a different church nearly every Sunday as a way to meet others in their Yuma, Ariz., community. "Steeple-chasing," as they call it, has added fresh context for her about the inclusion of women in preaching and decision-making in her own faith.
"We've been with everyone from Mennonites to Jehovah's Witnesses and from Jews to Muslims," said Richardson, who has a master's degree in social work and creates memes and does graphic design for Mormon Women Stand. "One thing I've learned is that in the LDS Church, women have a great voice and say in what is going on. Each week, Mormon women give talks, work in ward councils, preside over auxiliary organizations, organize ward activities and preach on Sunday."
Fallentine, Richardson and others with Mormon Women Stand also embrace recent policy changes in the church that have added to the visibility and participation of women, which include lowering the eligibility age for women serving missions from 21 to 19, new leadership opportunities and responsibilities for female missionaries and prayers by women at the faith's general conference sessions.
Other developments include the creation of an international board of women in the church's general Young Women auxiliary and the creation of a new general women's meeting, the brainchild of the church's general women leaders.
"Conversations about giving more visibility to women have been going on for some years," LDS Church spokeswoman Jessica Moody said recently. Those conversations led to the missionary changes and to the decision to add portraits of women leaders in the church's Conference Center.
"The church has always been good at including women," said Richardson, who served a mission in Belgium and the Netherlands. "We're excited to see those changes."
The goal of the 17 women who make the Mormon Women Stand Facebook page go is to post four new items a day, though they don't always succeed. One standing element on the page is "Sunday Evening Classics," which includes a guest moderator leading a Sunday evening discussion about a classic talk by an LDS Church leader; it has become one of the most popular items.
Fallentine and Richardson are pleased that more than 10,650 people have liked the Mormon Women Stand page in three weeks. In comparison, the year-old Facebook page for "Ordain Women," characterized in a New York Times story that took a yearlong look at women in the church as a "band of Mormon feminists" seeking priesthood ordination for women, has 2,450 likes.
"I don't know if we could say those numbers equal success," Richardson said, "but I'm humbled by it. It definitely shows me there was a need for such an endeavor. If it inspires a woman to do something differently today than she did yesterday, that would be success."
Mormon Women Stand leaders declined to directly address Ordain Women — "Our mission inherently opposes anything contrary to what church leaders have said," Richardson offered — but they said that when the LDS Church said it could not provide tickets to Ordain Women for the priesthood session of this weekend's general conference, interest in their new page seemed to grow.
Kathryn Skaggs, a popular Mormon blogger, publicized Fallentine's experience with the New Zealand Parliament and asked her to help start Mormon Women Stand. Skaggs recently became the target of some columnists for a post on her blog about the movie "Frozen." She was not the first to suggest the film has an underlying "agenda to normalize homosexuality," and said Wednesday that the reaction to her post revealed that all Latter-day Saints "should be concerned about issues of religious freedom."
Skaggs said Mormon Women Stand is the broad, collective voice of 17 "faithful, devout women from different backgrounds with different challenges and talents who take the covenants they make in the temple so seriously they are compelled to stand up for the doctrines, teachings and councils of the church."
"We realize," she added, "that most every active Mormon could say, 'I stand with the prophet.' What it means to us is unequivocal support."
That mission statement spoke to Richardson.
"I think there is a such a huge need right now for women to stand for things, to stand for families, to stand for morals," she said. "For me, talking about the things we have in common and to support the brethren has been a passion of mine. It's easy to support the brethren, but it can be harder to be vocal in support of the brethren. Mormon Women Stand is definitely a place for like-minded women to support the prophet."
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company