SALT LAKE CITY -- The Mormon church announced a campaign Tuesday for new laws that protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people from discrimination while somehow also protecting people who assert their religious beliefs.
"We must find ways to show respect for others whose beliefs, values and behaviors differ from ours while never being forced to deny or abandon our own beliefs, values and behaviors in the process," a church elder, Jeffrey R. Holland, said in announcing the church's position.
Mormon leaders did not explain just how it would draw lines between gay rights and religious freedoms, and it's unclear how much common ground the church will gain with this campaign. The church insists it is making no changes in doctrine, and still believes that sex is against the law of God unless it's within a marriage between a man and a woman.
But the new approach could profoundly change political calculations in the Mormon strongholds of Utah, Idaho, Nevada and Arizona, where the church and its members play a large civic role.
In Utah, where most state lawmakers are Mormon, the announcement was cheered after years of failed efforts to pass anti-discrimination measures.
"What the LDS church did today was historic," said Democratic state Sen. Jim Dabakis, who was raised Mormon and is openly gay. "This was a bold, strong, principled statement ... today we are seeing the fruits of civility and respect."
The gay-rights group Equality Utah also applauded, saying LGBT rights can co-exist with freedoms of religious individuals.
But national advocates on both sides were dismissive.
The Rev. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention called the Mormon leaders "well-intentioned, but naive" about animosity toward religious exemptions. And Sarah Warbelow, legal director for the Human Rights Campaign, called it "deeply flawed." The First Amendment's protection of religious freedom "does not give any of us the right to harm others, and that's what it sounds like the proposal from the Mormon church would do - it would allow a doctor to refuse to care for a lesbian because of his religious beliefs, for example," said James Esskes, who directs the LGBT project of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The campaign is the latest example of a shift in tone on gay rights by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which counts 15 million members worldwide. They have moved away from harsh rhetoric and are preaching compassion and acceptance of gays and lesbians now that gay marriage is legal in Washington D.C. and 36 states including Utah.
"Accommodating the rights of all people - including their religious rights - requires wisdom and judgment, compassion and fairness," said Holland, who appeared at a rare news conference with two other apostles from the church's governing Quorum of the Twelve.
"Politically, it certainly requires dedication to the highest level of statesmanship. Nothing is achieved if either side resorts to bullying, political point scoring or accusations of bigotry."
The Mormon church will back laws that protect "vital religious freedoms for individuals, families, churches and other faith groups while also protecting the rights of our LGBT citizens in such areas as housing, employment and public accommodation in hotels, restaurants and transportation," said Dallin H. Oaks, another apostle.
Mormon leaders still want to hire and fire workers based on their religious beliefs as well as behavior standards known as honor codes, which require gays and lesbians to remain celibate or marry someone of the opposite sex. The church also wants legal protections for religious objectors who work in government and health care, such as a physician who refuses to perform an abortion, or provide artificial insemination for a lesbian couple.
"It is one of today's great ironies that some people who have fought so hard for LGBT rights now try to deny the rights of others to disagree with their public policy proposals," Oaks said.
Accommodations for religious objectors have factored into every state legislative debate over gay rights. But rights advocates have gained leverage as support for same-sex marriage grows. In some states, such as Arizona, even business leaders are on their side, saying broad religious exemptions hurt a state's image.
But religious conservatives also mobilized after the U.S. Supreme Court set a broad expansion of gay marriage in motion last year, pressing states to allow some groups, companies and people to refuse some benefits or service for gay spouses. And gay rights groups seeking job and housing protections have faced an uphill battle in the more politically and religiously conservative states.
Much has changed since Mormons led a fight against same-sex unions in California.
Given the "current contentious atmosphere that exists among people of different views on these subjects," Oaks said, "we wish to promote a more Christian, a more civil and considerate tone."
Mormon leaders call for measures protecting gay rights