Updated: March 17, 2014 at 4:47 pm
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Mormon women's group pushing for gender equality was informed Monday that its members won't be allowed to protest on church property at the faith's upcoming conference.
Despite the notice, the group, Ordain Women, says members intend to march into Temple Square and ask to be allowed into an all-male priesthood meeting April 5, reprising a similar protest from last year.
The group formed last year to advocate for women's inclusion in higher-level positions in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the plan sets up a potential standoff that could lead to arrests if officials insist on keeping protesters out of the biannual general conference, which brings about 100,000 church members to Salt Lake City each session.
In a letter sent Monday, church officials told members of the women's group that if they insist on protesting, they'll need to stay in a "free speech zone" on a nearby street.
In October, about 200 men and women marched from a nearby park to a standby line outside the meeting only to be told they wouldn't be allowed in.
No arrests were made, and no incidents were reported, but they were followed by a handful of TV cameras and created a scene outside the Tabernacle at Temple Square, an immaculately manicured 35-acre area in downtown Salt Lake City where the church's towering flagship temple is surrounded by reflecting pools, statutes and buildings where visitors can learn about the faith.
"Activist events like this detract from the sacred environment of Temple Square and the spirit of harmony sought at General Conference. Please reconsider," the church letter says.
Kate Kelly, the group's founder, said they will gather again with respect and dignity. They'll insist on being allowed in Temple Square, but will leave once they are asked, she said. They requested tickets to the meeting but were denied again.
The fact that church officials are acknowledging the group and opening a dialogue is a step in the right direction, she said, but it's disappointing that church leaders are trying to put them in a zone reserved for outside protest groups who shout mean things at Mormons coming and going from the meetings.
"We see ourselves as a faithful group of Mormon women with sincere desires," Kelly said. "We're not against the church, we are the church."
Women can hold many leadership positions in the Mormon church, but aren't allowed to lead individual congregations or groups of congregations. The church's highest leadership panel, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, also is exclusively male.
The church says in its new letter that a "very large majority" of women in the faith disagree with the group's advocacy for priesthood ordination for women and consider that idea to be "extreme."
"Declaring such an objective to be non-negotiable, as you have done, actually detracts from the helpful discussions that leaders have held as they seek to listen to the thoughts, concerns, and hopes of women inside and outside of church leadership," the letter says. "Ordination of women to the priesthood is a matter of doctrine that is contrary to the Lord's revealed organization for his church."
The church encourages the women to watch a live broadcast of the meeting and participate in a similar meeting for women held the week before.
Kelly said the group may be small, but it is growing and represents an important voice within the faith. She said they won't be disruptive but will be steadfast in voicing their opposition to women being barred from the meeting.
Barring faithful Mormons from entering Temple Square would be disappointing and unprecedented, Kelly said, and she hopes it doesn't happen.
"If we are excluded from even walking on hallowed ground and the Temple, it will be very, very, very devastating to a lot of women who feel so excluded and so marginalized," Kelly said.
"It's highly unlikely that it will happen," she said, "but if does, we're going to continue and we're going to keep knocking."
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