OGDEN, Utah, Dec. 31--The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints responded to a plea to change its position on homosexuality by refusing to budge.

More than 300 gay and lesbian Mormons, friends and family members signed a petition asking the church to back off its view that homosexuality is sinful and unnatural.

The petition, asking that full church fellowship be extended to homosexuals, appeared Dec. 23 as a full-page ad in The Salt Lake Tribune.

Its author, Mac Madsen, said signers, which hail from 12 different countries and most of the 50 states, represent only a fraction of supporters.

The retired Weber State University assistant professor said placing the petition in a public forum came only after years of repeated attempts to engage church leadership in a dialogue on policies directed toward gay and lesbian members.

"Let us express our concerns about the pain, the broken families, the leaving the church," said Madsen. "Can we just talk about the issues?"

The church issued a terse, written response.

"The petition raises nothing new," read the statement. "President Gordon B. Hinckley has repeatedly expressed the church's compassion toward homosexuals."

Randy Ripplinger, LDS church spokesman, reiterated Hinckley's position that gays and lesbians are welcome in the church but expected to follow approved rules of conduct whether single or married.

"We recognize marriage as between a man and a woman," Ripplinger said.

He was unsure whether the church would issue a longer statement later and could not confirm whether discussions on the matter are under way among LDS leaders.

So far, the petition has appeared only in the Tribune. Cost considerations caused supporters to look for the greatest reader circulation, Madsen said.

Eric Jensen, who handles political and advocacy ads for the Newspaper Agency Corporation, said the Deseret News exercised its option not to run the ad after learning what it contained in September. Jensen said the LDS church-owned newspaper often refuses ads touching on issues sensitive to its readership such as those hawking tobacco and alcohol.

The petition's supporters disagree with the church's understanding of homosexuality as a lifestyle choice and challenge its endorsement of conversion therapy as a means of changing sexual orientation. They say initial studies support a biological link in homosexuality.

"The petition should not be construed as an attack on the church or church leadership but as a public appeal to reconsider, then change a policy that is causing unimaginable pain, turmoil and disillusionment," Madsen said.

The church's guarded response is typical, said Duane Jennings, spokesman for the Utah chapter of Affirmation, a group for homosexuals who wish to maintain their connection to the Mormon church.

Jennings said a history of martyrdom among Mormons contributes to the feeling that any view departing from "their view of the perfect world" is one that threatens the church.

"It's probably the key problem within the church," Jennings said. "It allows for huge evil, basically, to go on."

Gay advocates say church policy that treats homosexuals as less than full members feeds hate and homophobia.

For years, the church counseled homosexual members to marry and live a heterosexual lifestyle. In 1988, the church softened its position somewhat declaring marriage is not a cure-all for homosexuality and encouraging gays to remain celibate.

"It's institutionalized loneliness for a person's whole life," Jennings said.

In addition, church leaders have supported legislation opposing gay marriage in at least six states including Hawaii and Alaska. The church refused comment on political activities.

Despite his misgivings regarding the policies of the institution, Jennings considers himself a Mormon and retains his membership.

"My faith is in God," he said. "I believe in the restoration of all things."

Some say either support the institution or leave it. That choice is part of the free agency endorsed by the church, said Ray Ward, a Mormon since 1954, who frequently speaks out on social issues.

Ward said there are penalties for disobeying church law.

"Everyone, according to our doctrine, is born with the light of Christ, and we know the difference between right and wrong."

Ward said he doesn't believe that homosexuals are acting according to

an inborn trait. "It's just a lifestyle that they have chosen ... They cross the line on those certain moral values."

Some LDS church members agree that more education on gay issues is needed among heterosexuals.

One of them, Sam Trujillo, an LDS ward mission leader in Layton, said increased openness on a subject that once was never discussed is a sign society is moving in the right direction.

Trujillo said he is not acquainted with any acknowledged homosexuals and believes his experience mirrors that of many heterosexual Mormons, who simply haven't thought much about the gay experience.

"We're extending our morality to them," Trujillo said. "It's tough, because unless we walk a mile in their shoes ... it's hard to say."

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