SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Mormon leaders vowed to be a leading advocate for the belief that marriage is an institution exclusive to a man and a woman during the religion's biannual conference Saturday that also included two rare events.
The first came when the conference kicked off without the usual welcoming address from church President Thomas S. Monson, 87, who days earlier also missed a meeting with President Barack Obama while he was in Utah.
Monson, who was still present at conference and walked in on his own, skipped the speech as part of a decision to reduce the number of speeches he's giving this weekend, church officials said. He gave a short speech about the priesthood Saturday evening.
The second unusual event occurred when five people stood up and yelled, "Opposed," during a part of the conference when attendees usually raise their hands in unison in a vote of support for church leadership, drawing some gasps by surprised attendees who hadn't seen this kind of act for decades. They represented only a handful of the 20,000 in attendance.
Highlights from the conference in Salt Lake City:
SUPPORT FOR MARRIAGE BETWEEN A MAN-WOMAN
L. Tom Perry, a member of the faith's Quorum of the Twelve, cautioned Mormons not to be swayed by a world filled with media and entertainment that presents the minority masquerading as the majority and tries to make mainstream values seem obsolete.
Perry said strong, traditional families are the basic units of a stable society, a stable economy and a stable culture of values. He noted that Mormons investment in the topic is even deeper than other religions because they believe marriages and family are for eternity.
"We want our voice to be heard against all of the counterfeit and alternative lifestyles that try to replace the family organization that God Himself established," Perry said.
D. Todd Christofferson, another member of the quorum, added more on the topic, saying, "A family built on the marriage of a man and woman supplies the best setting for God's plan to thrive — the setting for the birth of children who come in purity and innocence from God."
Christofferson said the focus on marriage isn't meant to disparage those who don't marry, be it because they can't find a suitable partner, have physical or mental impairments or experience same-sex attraction.
"No one is predestined to receive less than all that the Father has for His children," Christofferson said.
The quorum is a governing body of the church that is modeled after Jesus Christ's apostles and serves under the church president and his two counselors.
As acceptance for gay marriage has swelled in recent years and same-sex unions have become legal in dozens of states, including Utah, the church's stance on homosexuality has softened.
Church leaders helped push through a Utah law this year that bars housing and employment discrimination against gay and transgender individuals while also expanding protections for the rights of religious groups and individuals. LGBT activists have spent years pushing for a statewide non-discrimination law, but they couldn't get traction until LDS leaders made a nationwide call for this type of legislation that combined protections for religious liberties.
But the religion has taken time during several recent conferences to emphasize its insistence that marriage should be limited to unions between a man and a woman, as God created. In April 2014, Neil L. Andersen of the quorum said, "While many governments and well-meaning individuals have redefined marriage, the Lord has not."
PRESIDENT SKIPS CUSTOMARY OPENING
A few eyebrows were raised when President Monson didn't come out for his customary welcome address, given instead by the faith's third-highest ranking leader, Dieter F. Uchtdorf.
Monson walked in and out of the two sessions on his own, though he had a little stumble as he was reaching his seat at the beginning of the afternoon session that led to gasps in the crowd. He recovered and sat through the session.
When he missed the meeting with Obama, church officials said that decision was to preserve his strength for the conference.
Monson has missed only one other welcoming speech at a conference since he was named president in February 2008. That was at the fall conference in October 2011.
In the Mormon faith, which counts 15 million members worldwide, church presidents are considered living prophets. Monson, the 16th president of a faith founded in 1830, has kept a relatively low profile during his tenure.
Monson's wife, Frances Monson, died at the age of 85 in May 2013.
SUPPORT FOR LEADERS NOT TOTALLY UNANIMOUS
Dieter F. Uchtdorf, the faith's third-highest ranking leader who was at the podium handling this portion of the conference, calmly responded when the five people stood up to cast opposing votes, causing a bit of a stir.
"Thank you. The vote has been noted," Uchtdorf said.
At the end of this segment, he reminded those in opposition they are welcome to talk more about their reasons with regional church leaders.
Two of the men who stood up said afterward they did it to express their displeasure with how few opportunities they have to express concerns to church leaders.
Micah Nickolaisen, 31, of Mesa, Arizona, said church leaders need to make room for Mormons who have serious questions and doubts without just telling them to study more scripture.
"The leaders of the church are insulated by so many layers of bureaucracy that we feel it's almost impossible for them to get genuine, authentic feedback," said Nickolaisen, a legal case manager.
Nickolaisen said they weren't kicked out of the conference or reprimanded.
Donald Braegger, 54, of American Fork, Utah, said wants church leaders to honestly address sensitive issues in history. He said he hopes other Latter-day Saints realize it's OK to show dissent and that there's never again a unanimous vote in conference, which he said is deceptive.
COOKIES AND KISSES
As part of the day's focus on marriage and family, Boyd Packer, president of the quorum, spoke about the joy of romance and love and the importance of a man and woman and their children being sealed in a Mormon temple for eternity. Packer, who has been married nearly 70 years, acknowledged marriage is a challenge and offered the key ingredients to successful marriages: "a cookie and a kiss."