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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Lester Leavitt wrote a letter asking family members to make a decision.
The Pompano Beach, Fla. man wanted his siblings and children to choose family over a call from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints leaders to support a November ballot initiative to define traditional marriage in California's constitution. A lifetime member of the Church who came out as a gay man in 2004, Leavitt wants his California relatives to walk out when a letter from the Church's leaders is read.
"I thought by asking my family to do this, I was simply asking them to send a strong message to Salt Lake City that they disagree with the idea that any church has the right to entrench clearly religious dogma into the constitution of a state or country," he wrote in a letter posted on an Internet discussion group called q-saints. "I was just asking them to defend my civil rights."
A letter from Thomas S. Monson, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was to be read from the pulpit in church congregations Sunday.
After working as an activist on behalf of gay members of the Church and surviving an excommunication attempt by his local bishop, Leavitt said Monson's letter was a disappointing last straw. He sent a certified letter to the Church's Salt Lake City headquarters Wednesday asking to have his name removed from the roles.
"I wanted to remain a cultural Mormon," Leavitt, 44, said Thursday. "I thought there was a way, an opening up, but then all of a sudden, the Church decides this ... and I'm not going to wait around."
Leavitt is far from alone. Since the letter first began circulating on the Web last weekend, hundreds of Church member blog postings have expressed disbelief, disappointment and outrage at the Church's decision to wade into politics.
"I don't really know anybody who takes issue with a Church's right to its moral position and teachings," said Nick Literski, of Seattle, a former Church member who is gay. "It's when they take a political action to impose those beliefs on society that people object. Even people who don't support marriage equality are still upset about this."
Officially, the Church teaches that homosexual sex is a sin, although celibate gays can remain active in church callings and activities. Since the 1990s the Church has been politically active in defeating same-sex marriage initiatives nationwide, including asking its members to vigorously help pass California's Proposition 22 in 2000, which prohibited California from legally recognizing gay marriages performed outside the state.
But over the last five years the church had seemed to undergo a subtle shift in position. Leaders have been more silent and limited the Church's activism to filing legal briefs and a signature on a 2006 letter to Congress supporting a federal marriage amendment.
In addition the rhetoric around what the Church calls same-gender attraction had softened and Latter-day Saints have been encouraged to encircle gay members with love and compassion.
Even a short statement of disappointment after last month's California's Supreme Court decision to legalize gay marriage was mild.
"Maybe I was just optimistic. I thought they might sit on the sidelines and not have any bad press," said Matt Thurston, a 39-year-old Church member from Corona, Calif., who is not gay. "Between (2000) and now, some of the things I've seen, some of the statements that have come out, they seemed much more sympathetic ... They don't treat it in the same way they used to."
Although President Monson's letter states the faith's "unequivocal" moral position that marriage between a man and a woman is an institution ordained by God seems to indicate no change of heart by leaders, many wonder if the general membership will rally to political participation with the same fervor as in 2000.
Wards were assessed fundraising goals and members walked door-to-door to get out the vote eight years ago.
"There is that culture of obedience that once the proclamation has been raised, that's it," said Jeffrey Nielsen, a professor of philosophy who was ousted from the Church-owned Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah in 2006 after criticizing the Church's position on gay marriage in a local newspaper column.
At the same time, the Church preaches that God blesses each person with the agency to make his or her own decisions and some may not surrender that freedom so easily, said Nielsen, who has submitted an open letter to his fellow Church members and to several California newspapers.
"A growing number of active Mormons, who have gay friends and family members are coming to the conclusion that our current leaders are as mistaken in promoting discrimination against gays and lesbians as was the Mormon hierarchy in the 60's when they opposed equal rights for people of color, and our Mormon leaders in the 70's when they opposed full legal equality for women," he writes. "No one is asking that you condone a behavior that might violate your religious faith, but we need to allow everyone the freedom to live their life as they see fit."
That the Church has changed in the past -- black men, for example were finally granted full ecclesiastical authority in 1978 -- gives Nielsen and others hope for its future. A generation of leaders who grew up alongside openly gay friends or relatives and a belief in continuing revelation offer opportunities for a new direction.
"Even if you take this from the LDS point of view where changes can only be made by revelation, by God, you still have to have leaders who are willing to ask the question," said Literski, 41, who was married and has five daughters. "There will come a day, I believe, when there will be somebody in authority who is willing. It won't be overnight, but I think we will see an accommodation."
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)