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FILE - The Church Office Building in Salt Lake City.

SALT LAKE CITY — Children of parents who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender may now be blessed as infants and later baptized as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, according to updates announced Thursday to November 2015 church policies intended at the time to maintain family harmony but perceived as painful by some supporters of the LGBT community.

The church also will update its handbook of instructions for leaders to remove the label of apostasy for homosexual behavior that was applied beginning in November 2015, said President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, who announced the changes on behalf of the First Presidency on Thursday morning during the leadership session of the church’s 189th Annual General Conference.

Thursday's news marked the first time the church had released information from a leadership session for general authorities and area seventies leading into a general conference, underscoring the importance of the changes that brought swift reaction locally and across the nation and world.

"The very positive policies announced this morning should help affected families,” President Oaks said. "In addition, our members' efforts to show more understanding, compassion and love should increase respect and understanding among all people of good will. We want to reduce the hate and contention so common today. We are optimistic that a majority of people — whatever their beliefs and orientations — long for better understanding and less contentious communications. That is surely our desire, and we seek the help of our members and others to attain it."

In a news release, the First Presidency said the changes were the result of extended counseling with the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and "fervent, united prayer to understand the will of the Lord on these matters."

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
The Salt Lake Temple during the 188th Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Sunday, April 1, 2018.

Positive step

Reaction Thursday included surprise, gratitude and joy and was followed in the nation's major news outlets as a significant moment in relations between the church and the LGBTQ community.

"I see this as an encouraging, positive step forward," said Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, who pulled off the freeway in Price, Utah to respond to a call. "We've seen such great compassion and warmth and love from members of the church, who have become allies. So, this to me is a realignment of the very best of Mormon people."

Tom Christofferson, who describes himself as a gay, single, active member of the church in good standing, was preparing to board a plane to Utah, where he will deliver a devotional at the Utah Valley Latter-day Saint Institute in Orem on Friday. He said he was thrilled the announcement would lift a worry for gay parents who want to support their children in the church.

"The big message to me is that this continues to be something that the brethren are seeking further light and knowledge on, and I'm really grateful for that," added Christofferson, author of "That We May Be One: A Gay Mormon's Perspective On Faith and Family."

He said his mind was on friends and others who stopped associating with the church after November 2015.

"I'm thinking of them today and hoping that they will feel that this removed the impediment that they had seen to their continued engagement," he said. "I hope many will want to come back and worship with us again."

NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young woke up in Hawaii to a phone choked with messages about the policy changes. Last week he joined his wife, Barb, and other members of the board of Encircle as they made a presentation to the church's Public Affairs Committee. Encircle operates programs in Salt Lake and Utah counties that seek to deepen and enrich conversations in families and between faith communities and LGBTQ+ people.

"We've all been looking for things to get better for our LGBT brothers and sisters, and the policy rescission is a tremendous step forward," Young said. "To have that go away allows for some really productive conversations to take place inside of families, and to try and keep families together and create space for people."

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
FILE - President Russell M. Nelson, center, President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, left, and President Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the First Presidency, right, arrive for the Saturday afternoon session of the 188th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018.

Developing policy

In November 2015, the church's previous First Presidency led by the late President Thomas S. Monson issued new policies and handbook instructions that children living with a same-gender couple could not receive baby blessings or baptism and that entering a same-sex marriage was apostasy requiring a church disciplinary council. Disciplinary councils can lead to excommunication.

At the time, church leaders said the policies were intended to avoid confusion and conflict in families headed by same-sex couples.

Throughout 2015, LGBT church members and supporters had expressed public gratitude for developments in the church, including the launch of its mormonandgay.lds.org website and its fairness-for-all approach, which undergirded the Utah Compromise. That compromise became national news when it became a law in Utah that provided legal protection for LGBT people in housing and employment while strengthening religious freedom protections.

In March 2015, Equality Utah's Williams stood together with Latter-day Saint apostles while Utah's governor signed the Utah Compromise into law.

"We were making progress together," Williams said, "but sometimes progress doesn't go in a straight line. Sometimes it swerves a little bit. ... I see (Thursday's announcement) as really realigning the best values of the faith, which is compassion and kindness and bearing one another's burdens."

At the time they announced the November 2015 policies, church leaders reaffirmed their longstanding position that church members should not exclude or be disrespectful to those who choose a different lifestyle. They also said church members could express political support for same-sex marriage without consequence to their church membership.

Still, some said the policies were painful for them and critics launched petitions calling on guest performers to cancel appearances with the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square and to boycott games against Brigham Young University, the church's flagship school.

"When the November policy was announced, I was in Chicago and I just walked outside into the rain just cried because I knew the harmful impact it would have on Latter-day Saint families like mine," said Equality Utah's Williams, a gay man who grew up in the church and said LGBT issues had been a wedge between him and his parents.

Adam Fondren, Deseret News
FILE - The exterior of the Church Administration Building in Salt Lake City Monday, Sept. 18, 2017.

Revelation's role

As church leaders shared the changes Thursday, they said they were focused on treating all people with love, kindness and civility. They make clear distinctions between church doctrine and church policies and said Thursday's changes are limited to policies.

"These changes do not represent a shift in church doctrine related to marriage or the commandments of God in regard to chastity and morality," the release said. "The doctrine of the Plan of Salvation and the importance of chastity will not change."

President Russell M. Nelson, who succeeded President Monson as church president, was president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 2015. He said in early 2016 that the November 2015 policies were the result of revelation. Latter-day Saints believe their church is the restored church of Jesus Christ and that God directs the church through ongoing revelation through a living prophet, the church president.

President Nelson, who became the church president in January 2018, reiterated in his talk to general and area authorities from around the world during Thursday morning's meeting that a flurry of policy changes over the past year were inspired by revelation.

President Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the First Presidency, said the church needs God's direction to meet changing circumstances and he has guided changes in the church's practices and policies throughout its history.

Christofferson, a brother of Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, welcomed church leaders' statements that the updated policies are the result of inspiration.

"One, I think this is a recognition of the prayers of so many people that there could be a way to have a more welcoming place in the church for LGBTQ people," he said. "And simultaneously it is, in my mind, an indication of that continued wrestle that prophets have to know what God would have them do in this time, today, and with the increased understanding we have about the nature of what it means to be gay, that we don't have all the answers that we would want. But what this clearly says to me is that there's an opportunity to continue to be more welcoming to people wherever they are in their lives."

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
FILE - President Russell M. Nelson, center, President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, left, and President Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the First Presidency, right, take their seats for the Saturday afternoon session of the 188th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018.

Three changes

President Oaks said the faith's leaders cannot change God's doctrine, but he made it clear they want church members and church policies to be considerate.

Richard Ostler, who became an LGBT ally within the church while serving as bishop of a Young Single Adult ward said the updated policies accomplish that.

"Our LGBTQ members have a difficult road," Ostler said, "and I feel these adjustments help us better mourn, comfort and bear their burdens as they make their way forward."

News of the three policy updates announced Thursday are being sent to priesthood leaders around the world and will be included in online updates to "Handbook 1: Stake Presidents and Bishops," according to the news release.

• All parents, including those outside the church or LGBT, now may request a blessing for a baby by a worthy, authorized priesthood holder, President Oaks said. Local church leaders should instruct the parent or parents that the blessing, an ordinance that places the child's name on formal church records and triggers a lifelong series of church contact, would mean congregation members will contact them periodically and propose baptism when the child turns eight years old.

• Beginning immediately, children eight and older whose parents identify themselves as LGBT may be baptized without First Presidency approval, President Oaks said. Latter-day Saints baptize by immersion, and baptism and confirmation give a person membership in the church.

President Oaks said local church leaders should obtain permission from custodial parents for a child's baptism and ensure that they understand the doctrine church members will teach a baptized child and that he or she is making a covenant to live the principles of the gospel as taught by the church.

• President Oaks said same-gender marriage by a church member still is considered a serious transgression. However, it no longer will be treated as apostasy for purposes of church discipline. The church now will respond to violations to its doctrine of the law of chastity the same way whether they occur in heterosexual or homosexual relationships. The doctrine teaches that sexual relations are proper only between a man and a woman when they are legally and lawfully wedded as husband and wife.

The First Presidency also issued a joint message with the release on Thursday.

"We pray these teachings will be received in the same spirit we received them from the Lord and have shared them with our leaders — as positive and inspiring instruction that will bless many lives," The First Presidency said. "With gratitude we acknowledge God's continuing guidance and love for all his children and invite our members to renew their commitment to follow the teachings of the Savior, Jesus Christ to love God and to love one another."

The church does not consider it a sin to feel attraction to another person of the same sex. Faithful members with those attractions serve Latter-day Saint missions, hold church positions and worship in Latter-day Saint temples.

History of change

Throughout the church’s history, Latter-day Saint leaders have instructed church members that current revelation overtakes past teachings. For example, after the 1978 revelation that extended the priesthood to members of African descent, the late apostle Elder Bruce R. McConkie said faithful people would get in line with a modern, living prophet and forget everything Elder McConkie and other leaders had said about blacks and the priesthood "with limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world."

"It is a new day and a new arrangement," he said.

In fact, President Oaks said last June that he was among white American church members "who felt the pain of black brothers and sisters and longed for their relief" before the priesthood restriction was lifted after 126 years.

Some church policies have changed quickly. For example, the church dropped Jesus Christ from its name in 1834, then restored it in 1838. Church leaders also changed the length of missions for men from 24 months to 18 months in April 1982. The First Presidency reinstituted 24-month missions in November 1984.

Additional reaction

Taylor and Adam Cash served Latter-day Saint missions but were excommunicated, as they expected, by a local church disciplinary council in January, two months after the two men were married. But a photo of a Latter-day Saint temple hangs in their Lehi, Utah, home and they say they and their foster children are welcomed in their Latter-day Saint congregation.

"Hearing today that our church and our ward are on the same page is a relief," Taylor said.

Thursday's news came a day after they learned that a birth mother had selected them to adopt her child this summer.

"The first thing I thought this morning was that someone can give our baby a blessing," Taylor said. "Our baby can grow up in the church. We both grew up in the church and that's what we want for our kids."

Adam said the couple believe children are blessed by the values and morals taught by the church and he wants his children to have the same experiences he did growing up.

"I feel like I still have a testimony the church is true," Taylor said. "I think things have happened for a reason. We think we can have a happy life together and have the church be a part of it."

Many others also reacted to the news on Thursday.

"In this reversal, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has taken an important step forward," Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement. "There's still work to do but this policy reversal is a very welcome change that moves the church closer to a day where LGBTQ Mormons can see themselves affirmed and included within their faith community."

Affirmation, a support group for Latter-day Saint LGBTQ people, applauded the end to restrictions on children of same-sex couples but said "there is still much work to be done to make the chapels of the church and homes of families within the church safe and welcoming spaces for LGBTQ persons."

The statement said the fact legally married same-sex couples are still considered in serious transgression within the church leaves painful choices for lesbian and gay members and that unresolved issues remain for transgender members.

An official at the Trevor Project, which supports suicide prevention efforts for LGBTQ youth, also embraced the news.

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The Trevor Project welcomes any faith group's public commitment to treat the LGBTQ community fairly and equally, and this statement by the LDS Church to change course is a move in the right direction that will make a real difference in the lives of LGBTQ Mormons," said Sam Brinton, head of advocacy and govermental affairs. "We hear from LGBTQ young people in crisis every day who struggle to reconcile being part of both the LGBTQ and faith communities, and decisions to end policies of exclusion can help LGBTQ youth feel seen, loved and less alone."

KSL-TV's Sam Penrod contributed to this story.