LDS Church leaders Wednesday took an official stand in the politically charged debate over same-sex marriage, issuing a statement that a church spokesman said supports state and federal efforts to constitutionally ban gay marriages.

The statement issued by the church's governing First Presidency reads: "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints favors a constitutional amendment preserving marriage as the lawful union of a man and a woman."

While the statement said the church isn't endorsing a specific amendment, spokesman Michael Otterson said it shows support of all proposed constitutional amendments banning gay marriages.

The church statement comes just days before Monday's scheduled debate in the U.S. Senate on the Federal Marriage Amendment (SJR 30), which would constitutionally define marriage as "the union of a man and a woman."

The proposed Musgrave-Allard amendment would federally ban gay marriage and would not allow states to be required to recognize other domestic unions. It would need two-thirds of the votes in each the House and Senate before going to the states for ratification.

In Utah, voters in November will decide whether to amend the state constitution to ban gay marriages and prevent other domestic relationships from being given the same "legal effect" as marriage. In addition to the proposed constitutional change, state legislators also defined marriage by statute.

Church sources said the timing of the statement indicates LDS leadership wanted to express its general support for traditional marriage, without endorsing a specific amendment. The sources said the church wanted to avoid the political debate and not get involved in the semantics of specific legislation.

While the church's statement clearly backs both proposed constitutional amendments, Scott McCoy, head of the Don't Amend Alliance, which is opposed to the state Amendment Three, said it's telling that the LDS statement did not endorse any specific amendment.

"I don't think this is a setback for our campaign," McCoy said. "Our campaign has said all along that this isn't about the traditional definition of marriage."

He said in addition to banning same-sex marriages, the state amendment would prevent same-sex couples from rights such as inheritance, adoption and health insurance.

"We're still planning on sitting down with the church and explaining why, in spite of the fact they may be in favor of the traditional definition of marriage . . . this amendment goes too far, and has real consequences for families in Utah," McCoy said. Utah Sens. Orrin G. Hatch and Bob Bennett, both Republicans, have said they support the proposed constitutional amendment. They, and other supporters, say it's necessary to protect marriage from court rulings such as one in Massachusetts that allowed same-sex couples to marry.

Those opposing the amendment say it would write discrimination into the U.S. Constitution and could be used to block civil unions.

Hatch, who chairs the Judiciary Committee and co-sponsored the amendment up for debate, said in a statement Wednesday that the LDS Church "has long stood for the sanctity of marriage and the importance of family."

"This endorsement is further indication of the overwhelming support for an amendment from people of all different faiths, in Utah and across the country," he said.

Brigham Young University political science professor David Magleby said the church statement gives added emphasis to the church's long-standing position on marriage.

"The church's statement was widely assumed," he said. "This simply puts it in writing."

He said the church rarely speaks out on specific ballot issues. The most recent example in Utah was in 1992, when the church opposed an effort to legalize pari-mutuel betting. That initiative failed.

However, Magleby said the LDS Church's opinion doesn't always drive public opinion in the Beehive State. He said the church opposed efforts to repeal Prohibition in the 1930s, but the state voted to legalize alcohol.

On the gay marriage issue, Magleby said while the church statement reaffirmed its position, it would probably not have much impact at the ballot box in Utah.

"This is an issue that the vast majority of Utah voters had their minds made up on before the LDS announcement," Magleby said. "That's true on both sides."

In another development Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the city of Baltimore and four Maryland counties for the right of same-sex couples to marry.

The lawsuit was filed in Baltimore Circuit Court on behalf of nine couples and a man whose partner recently died. The couples had sought marriage licenses and were denied, said Ken Choe of the ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, based in New York. Maryland law specifically defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

Contributing: Associated Press

E-mail: [email protected]