By Eric M. Johnson
(Reuters) - Lawmakers in Salt Lake City, capital of the conservative, predominantly Mormon state of Utah, have voted to rename a downtown street after the slain San Francisco gay rights activist Harvey Milk.
The City Council gave unanimous approval late on Tuesday to a measure bestowing the honorary designation Harvey Milk Boulevard to the avenue 900 South, blocks from the world headquarters of the Mormon church. It marked Salt Lake City's latest expression of support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) equality.
The name is honorary, meaning the street will still officially be known as 900 South, the council said.
The Mormon faith, formally known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has long opposed gay marriage and last year sparked controversy by instituting a policy barring children of same-sex wedded couples from being baptized in the faith until they reach adulthood.
But Salt Lake City, markedly more progressive than the state as a whole, has increasingly distanced itself from the church on social issues such as LGBT rights.
"Milk imagined a world where everybody was recognized for their value," Stan Penfold, the city's first openly gay council member, said by telephone. "He was an inspirational figure for gay activism."
The street naming comes four months after former Utah state lawmaker Jackie Biskupski was sworn in as Salt Lake City's first openly gay mayor. Another city council member, Derek Kitchen, is also openly gay.
The street renaming was proposed before recent protests in several U.S. states, mostly in the South, over legislation restricting transgender bathroom access and allowing businesses to deny services to same-sex couples on religious grounds.
Milk, one of the first openly gay politicians in the United States, was assassinated in 1978, a year after winning election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
A U.S. postage stamp honoring Milk was unveiled at the White House in 2014. In 2009, President Barack Obama awarded Milk a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The Mormon church said in an e-mail that it has not taken a position on the Harvey Milk street naming.
Last year, the church announced support for U.S. laws protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination in housing and employment, but its leaders have continued to insist that sex should only happen between a wedded man and a woman. The church considers gay marriage grounds for excommunication.
(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Steve Gorman and Bill Trott)