Children of LGBT parents can now be blessed or baptised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, church officials declared in a new policy on Thursday, dramatically reversing a 2015 decision to exclude those children from the rituals until they were 18. The church will also update its handbook for leaders, removing the label of "apostasy" for same-sex marriage.
"While we still consider such a marriage to be a serious transgression, it will not be treated as apostasy for purposes of Church discipline," three Mormon leaders said in a joint statement on Thursday. "Instead, the immoral conduct in heterosexual or homosexual relationships will be treated in the same way."
The new policy was announced during the leadership session of the church's 189th Annual General Conference.
The initial decision to exclude LGBT families from the core rituals, announced in June 2015, was met with fierce criticism across the church, widely known as the Mormon church.
"It sent a shock wave through the church," said Taylor Petrey, a religion professor at Kalamazoo College who is writing a book on gender and Mormonism.
Petrey said he was especially surprised by the new policy because the president of the church, Russell Nelson, was one of the old policy's most vocal defenders.
"He called it a revelation, which is the highest status of church teaching there is," he said. "To see that rescinded while he's the head of the church is a shocking reversal."
Several church leaders weren't sure how to implement the old policy, said Matthew Bowman, a historian of the Mormon Church. For example, some Mormon children had parents who were in a same-sex relationship but they weren't living with them due to divorce.
"There have been local leaders who have slow-peddled it, put it on hold, or sought further clarification," he said. "Because of that, the impact of it has not been what it could have been."
Under the old policy, once the child of an LGBT parent turned 18, he or should could disavow the practice of same-sex cohabitation or marriage and stop living within the household and request to join the church. Under the new policy, it will be no longer necessary to do this.
Steve Evans, a Salt Lake City-based contributor to the popular Mormon blog By Common Consent, said that the reaction against the initial policy was swift because it seemed to punish children for the actions of parents.
"It's probably the first time I've seen direct public opposition to a church policy by the rank and file," he said. "That might have something to do with the reversal today."
Still, he said, there might be pushback among some who thought the old policy was supposed to have been divined by God.
"People who supported it are saying, was it from God? If it was from God, why are you rolling it back?," Evans said. "Other people are saying, we knew it wasn't from God. Does it call into question the church's claims to divine authority because of the reversal? Maybe it points us to a leadership that isn't infallible."
The church, which lobbied against gay marriage in states including California and Hawaii before it became legal across the U.S., Emphasised that the reversal of its policy does not change Mormon teaching that sex is intended for marriage between a man and a woman.
"People who are progressive see this as a positive change but still not where they want the church to go," Evans said.