SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - A high-ranking leader from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints urged members Saturday to adhere to the faith's law of chastity that forbids premarital sex despite mocking by others on social media.
During a speech at a twice-annual church conference in Salt Lake City, D. Todd Christofferson bemoaned that "we live in a hedonistic age when many question the importance of the Lord's commandments or simply ignore them."
He didn't mention the church's prohibition of same-sex relationships in his speech, but fellow church leaders have recently reaffirmed the religion's opposition to the practice. Christofferson is a member of a top church governing board called the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
"This is a day of sometimes merciless attacks in social media and in person against those who seek to uphold the Lord's standard in dress, entertainment, and sexual purity," Christofferson said. "It is often the youth and young adults among the saints, as well as women and mothers, who bear this cross of mocking and persecution. It is not easy to rise above such abuse, but remember the words of Peter: 'If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye; for the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you: on their part he is evil spoken of, but on your part he is glorified.'"
Several blocks away from the conference, hundreds of people that included many ex-members of the faith gathered to call on the church and other religions to implement stronger rules to prevent child abuse and make sure young Latter-day Saints aren't asked inappropriate questions about their adherence to the faith's rules for sexual behavior.
The "Protect Every Child" group is led by Sam Young, who was kicked out of the religion last year after his public opposition to closed-door, one-on-one interviews of youth where he and his followers say inappropriate sexual questions lead to shame and guilt.
Former church member Stuart Shellenberger held a sign that read, "Protect every child. No sexual questions." The 41-year-old father of five from Show Low, Arizona, said he was asked inappropriate sexual questions when he was a youth, and wants the faith to ban those questions in the interviews.
Church leaders have defended the so-called "worthiness" interviews as an important way for bishops to get to know youth better and determine their religious habits and obedience to God. The church changed its policy last year to allow children to bring a parent or adult with them and published the list of questions that are asked.
Lisa Thredgold, who left the faith two years ago, the changes were a good step but said it would better to scrap the interviews all together.
"In my eyes, all children are worthy," said Thredgold, 42, of Salt Lake City. "There's no reason to interview them for their worthiness. In God's eyes, they're worthy."
The two-day conference comes during a period of heightened anticipation and excitement about what church President Russell M. Nelson might do next following a dizzying number of policy changes he has made during his first two years at the helm of the faith.
Earlier this week, Nelson announced that women can now be official "witnesses" at two key ceremonies - baptisms and temple sealings for married couples - in a move considered to be a small but important step toward breaking down rigid gender roles in the religion.
It added to a long to a long list of noteworthy moves made by the 95-year-old former heart surgeon since he assumed the post in January 2018.
He hasn't touched core doctrine, but he has launched a campaign calling on people to stop using the shorthand names "Mormon" and "LDS," severed the faith's century-old ties with the Boy Scouts of America and shortened Sunday worship by an hour.
He also rescinded rules banning baptisms for children of gay parents and branding same-sex couples apostates subject to excommunication. Those 2015 policies had generated widespread backlash.
Nelson has traveled to six continents as he focuses on cementing the faiths' place as a global religion, backing it with moves that bring uniformity for congregations not only in the American West but in places such as Africa and South America. More than half of the faith's 16 million members live outside the United States.
Like his all church presidents before him, Nelson not only oversees church operations, he is considered by church members to be a prophet who speaks with God. Nelson has spoken openly about this role, often citing the faith's belief in "ongoing revelation" for the changes.
There's no guarantee Nelson or other top leaders will make any more big announcements or pronouncements during the two-day conference, but he has church members on the edge of their seats.
"He has injected this feeling that anything can happen," said Steve Evans, a lawyer in Salt Lake City who runs an online forum for progressive church members. "We've already seen some fairly significant changes ... It's hopeful."