SALT LAKE CITY — When the World Congress of Families meets in Salt Lake City in October, it will bring together scholars, religious leaders, motivational speakers, youths and media personalities to "affirm, celebrate, and encourage the natural family" — defined on the Congress website as a family centered around marriage between a man and woman.
Elder M. Russell Ballard, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, will be a keynote speaker at the opening session. The 2,500 expected conference participants will hear from 200 speakers, many of whom are key figures in religion and family scholarship.
Yet the conference, scheduled Oct. 27-30, has been met with protest and controversy by critics who claim the congress is an attack on the LGBT community and worthy of condemnation.
Last August, the Australian Senate passed a motion calling for federal ministers to boycott a World Congress of Families gathering in Melbourne and about 100 demonstrators blocked the entrance to the event.
The year before, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists accused the World Congress of Families of supporting a Russian law that banned the distribution of LGBT "propaganda" to minors. The conference, which was scheduled to take place at the Kremlin, was ultimately canceled after Russia annexed Crimea.
Now, in the runup to the World Congress of Families IX — the first congress to be hosted in an American city — organizers are continuing to face criticism.
"I understand there will be protests and so forth," World Congress of Families IX executive director Janice Crouse said. "We will welcome them in and invite them to participate. We have a really good relationship with the local people and the LGBT community, and we expect that to continue."
Hosted by the Sutherland Institute, a conservative public policy think tank, the conference is expected to bring people from around the world to Salt Lake City to the largest "pro-family" conference in the world.
Yet the Human Rights Campaign has called the group "one of the most influential American organizations involved in the export of hate." In 2013, the Southern Poverty Law Center added the organization to its list of anti-LGBT hate groups.
Ty Cobb, the director of Human Rights Campaign Global, said some speakers at World Congress of Families events have publicly supported laws that criminalize homosexuality in countries like Russia and Uganda.
"They love to use the language of the 'natural family' and they love to talk about what they're doing as if it's wholesome and hearty. But unfortunately, by excluding a segment of society and actually advocating for further marginalization of folks that don't fit in that definition, they're doing a real harm," said Cobb.
Larry Jacobs, the managing director of the World Congress of Families, disputed the Human Rights Campaign and Southern Poverty Law Center's characterizations. The conference, he said, is a forum for disparate family oriented organizations and individuals to share their research and beliefs on marriage, children and morality.
Organizers say the Congress is not one voice, but multiple voices from different organizations offering a variety of perspectives. And to label the collective effort as anti-gay is unfair.
"Despite what others in the media would say, we actually are a group that brings people together," Jacobs said.
Despite what others in the media would say, we actually are a group that brings people together.
Jacobs argued that LGBT issues are not a priority for the World Congress of Families, which has only one full-time employee, and that the rise of LGBT rights as a political issue made the congress a flashpoint.
"A few years ago there was no controversy in promoting marriage between a man and a woman," Jacobs said. "There was no controversy in declaring that the sexual revolution has actually caused more problems than it solved.
"Suddenly, we're a target," he said.
World Congress of Families organizers are continuing to add speakers as October approaches.
Among the confirmed speakers are Brad Wilcox, the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, whose widely quoted research focuses on marriage, religion and parenting among other topics; and Joseph Price, an economics professor at Brigham Young University whose research includes labor, family and health.
Dr. Monique Chireau of Duke University Medical School, who testified at Senate hearings last year in relation to the Women's Health Protection Act, is scheduled to speak. As is John Mueller, a Lehrman Institute Fellow in Economics, the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Some of the 200 speakers have faced controversy themselves.
Brian Brown, the president of the National Organization for Marriage, is scheduled to present. He has come under fire from LGBT advocacy groups for questioning whether legalizing same-sex marriage will lead to normalizing pedophilia.
Mark Regnerus, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, was the author of a study that purported to show that children of same-sex couples fared worse than those with heterosexual parents. The findings and research methodology were questioned.
Jacobs himself has come under scrutiny for public statements supporting the law against LGBT "propaganda" in Russia, calling it a child protection law that will prevent people from "encouraging minors to engage in sex practices that are not only immoral, but carry a high risk of contracting life-threatening diseases."
Local LGBT advocacy groups expressed mixed feelings about the conference.
Equality Utah board chairperson Marina Gomberg said it was "not optimal" for the conference to be held in Salt Lake City and said the organization spreads misinformation about families with same-sex parents.
"Semantics can't hide that they are incredibly dangerous to LGBT families," she said.
Semantics can't hide that they are incredibly dangerous to LGBT families.
The Human Rights Campaign, Planned Parenthood Association of Utah and Mormons for Marriage, a group not formally affiliated with the LDS Church, have backed another symposium, the Inclusive Families Conference, scheduled to take place a few days before the World Congress of Families event.
The timing was coincidental, but organizers say it allows the conference to serve as a counterpoint to the World Congress of Families gathering, according to conference chairperson and Utah Pride Center executive director Marian Edmonds-Allen.
Edmonds-Allen said she's hopeful the two groups can co-host a panel or discussion "to show that, 'OK, despite some real differences … people can come together around shared values and concerns.'"
She said she listened to the World Congress of Families' press conference, where organizers said they would welcome dialogue from people with different opinions.
So Edmonds-Allen is giving them the benefit of the doubt — for now.
"To me, it's about what [they're] going to do locally while they're here in Utah," she said. "So far, I'm not hearing anything that's hateful at all from them."
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