Utah Democrats are saying that a letter local LDS Church leaders are reading over the pulpit indicates you can be a faithful Latter-day Saint and a Democrat.
Utah Republicans are saying the letter doesn't necessarily mean that and that church leaders have always said you can belong to any major political party and be a good church member.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints isn't elaborating on the letter.
"The church has been making statements like this for some time," said Todd Taylor, Utah Democratic Party executive director. "But this is a good step for us" in the off-and-on-again public debate over whether faithful LDS Church members can still be good Democrats, Taylor said.
Each political season, leaders of the LDS Church send out a letter to stake leaders encouraging members to be good citizens and participate in the political process. The letter is to be read to local congregations before Tuesday. In some congregations, the letter has already been read.
Next Tuesday the party caucuses convene in Utah, when residents gather to vote for county and state party delegates, who in turn will adopt party platforms and screen party candidates before a June primary election.
This year's letter reiterates that the church does not endorse any political candidate nor any political party. But the letter this year includes some language not in previous letters, a comparison with older such letters provided by the church's public information office shows.
"Principles compatible with the gospel may be found in the platforms of all major political parties. While the church does not endorse political candidates, platforms or parties, members are urged to be full participants in political, governmental and community affairs," the letter states.
Church spokesman Dale Bills said besides the letter itself, the church has no further comment.
Local Democrats who have felt since the 1970s that local Republicans too often try to tie together their political and religious beliefs to the detriment of Democratic candidates are saying this year's letter is a good turn of events.
"The Democratic Party, like The Church of Jesus Christ, believes there is a clear responsibility for society to care for the poor, help working families in their challenges of raising children and providing a decent income for them, and reach out to those in society who are often left out," Taylor said in a written statement.
"We hope members of the church will take this as an opportunity to find out more about the Democratic Party's principles that are closely connected with those of The Church of Jesus Christ and realize that the Democratic Party represents the same values shared by many Latter-day Saints."
GOP state chairman Joe Cannon said Tuesday he had heard about the LDS letter. But Cannon said it is general in nature and certainly isn't an endorsement of any Democratic candidate nor of any parts of the Utah Democratic Party platform.
"This is not an earth-shaking thing," Cannon said of the letter. "The church clearly says, explicitly says, that it endorses no candidates, platforms or parties. (The letter) says what it says. . . . Sure, a lot of good Latter-day Saints are Democrats. But a lot are Republicans, too."
On rare occasions, such as the recent ballot initiatives on gay marriages across the country, the church does take a stand on politically sensitive issues. Last year, church leaders several times issued statements saying any Utah state income tax reform should include the current deductions for charitable giving.
And with about 80 percent of the 104 part-time state legislators being members of the LDS Church, those rare political stands carry a lot of weight in Utah, where the 12-million-member worldwide church is headquartered.
Meanwhile, Cannon said that despite complaints by some longtime Utah GOP dissidents, the state Republican Party will conduct its Tuesday night meetings like it has in the past.
Mike Ridgway and a handful of other unhappy Republicans say the state party is ignoring national Republican Party rules by allowing residents who are not registered Republicans to attend the neighborhood mass meetings, elect and be elected county and state delegates.
National GOP rules specifically prohibit nonregistered Republicans from making any party decisions or serving in any offices, says Ridgway, who has been booted out of previous party offices he's held because of his ongoing intraparty battles with county and state GOP leaders.
E-mail: [email protected]