WASHINGTON — Amid escalating fights over same-sex marriage, Mormons, Jews, Protestants, Catholics, political conservatives and even Miss America gathered at the Washington LDS Temple Saturday to discuss working together to protect traditional families.

"An attack on the family is an attack on society," said Tanya K. Skeen, vice president of Family Action Council International. "Let us be united in this great work" of defending families, she told about 500 people gathered there.

Her group convened the interfaith conference at the LDS temple visitors' center entitled, "Defending Marriage and the Family: By Faith and by Reason." It was designed to develop ammunition and encouragement for those supporting traditional families in national and international forums and fights.

Presentations ranged from scholars outlining arguments that the Bible does not sanction same-sex marriage to social scientists describing how dissolving traditional families hurts society. Also, Miss America, Erika Harold, pushed her trademark issue of the importance of teaching sexual abstinence to minors.

"Abstinence until marriage affirms the importance of marriage and empowers young people to obtain the marriage, family and future they want," Harold told the Deseret Morning News. "There are many competing messages out there that can be confusing, but a message of truth really resonates with young people," she said.

Gerald McDermott, a theology professor at Roanoke College and an associate Episcopal priest, told conferees "the Bible unambiguously presents marriage as the union of a man and a woman" from the beginning with Adam and Eve through all mentions of marriage in the New Testament.

He said the Bible also mentions homosexual conduct 20 times "and every time condemns homosexual behavior. . . . Homosexuality is never treated as anything but a disorder."

But Monte Nyman, president of Southern Virginia University and a former professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, said, "You can reject the sin without rejecting the person" — as Christ did when he would be welcoming of sinners, but also challenge them to change their ways.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin said, "The very first statement of God to man and woman was to enjoy one another and have children. The essence of a family preceded all other instructions to man." Lapin noted that just before God said that, he had said it was "not good for man to be alone" — so Eve was created, not another man. He said that man and woman were made for each other.

Lapin also said marriage's roots come from God — and likely never would have developed if godless evolution truly produced man. For example, he said to imagine a cave man, which evolution theories suggest was man's ancestor. He said imagine a cave woman telling him she just invented marriage so he would now have to give up all other women, provide for her and help raise their children.

"He would run away," Lapin said. "On the surface, family isn't in man's best interest" — but people of faith say God instituted it to help elevate mankind.

Patrick Fagan, a scholar with the conservative Heritage Foundation, outlined decades of studies showing repeatedly that children in stable, traditional families thrive much better those whose homes are broken by divorce, or where parents never married (including gay relationships).

He said in traditional families, poverty is lower, income is much higher, members are much happier, children's grades are higher, mental health is better and abuse is much more rare. "The patriarchal family is the safest place for children. The safest place for women is that same patriarchal family," he said.

Sheri Dew, CEO of Deseret Book and a former counselor in the LDS Relief Society General Presidency, noted she is age 50 and has never married — although it was always her dream to do so. But she said her determination to live a chaste life and seek a traditional family likely led her to more happiness than she would have found otherwise.

"To be brutally candid, it was not always easy to be faithful to that vow. There were lonely times. But it was easier than the alternative," she said. "I never once had to worry about unwanted pregnancy. I never had to worry for a moment about sexually transmitted diseases. I never had to feel regret that a man used me and discarded me."

She added, "Morality, ironically, is actually the easier way. Why don't we teach that more? Sometimes we talk so much about being morally clean, I wonder if we tell our children why. . . . I never met a man and a woman who said they were happier because they committed adultery."

She said, however, she has never seen pain as deep for families — even at the death of a loved one — as the pain caused by infidelity and divorce among spouses.

Dew said she has found at United Nations conferences on the family that good people are receptive to the truth and can be persuaded away from actions that hurt families. She urged all to spread the word to those around them. "Little by little we can reclaim and preserve the family," Dew said.

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