By Jennifer Dobner Associated Press

Head of Chruch of Latter Day Saints warns followers that ‘moral footings of society continue to slip’

SALT LAKE CITY — Mormon church President Thomas S. Monson said Sunday, April 5 that Latter-day Saints should not be discouraged by those who may malign or ridicule the church as it seeks to uphold its moral values in a changing world.

His remarks on the second day of the annual spring conference are a tacit reminder of the negative backlash The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has felt since last fall when it worked with a coalition of groups to successfully ban gay marriage in California.

Many gay marriage advocates turned their anger toward the Mormon church, picketing outside church temples nationwide.

In Utah, more than 3,000 staged a protest march outside the Salt Lake City temple just days after Proposition 8 was passed by California voters in November. A local church meeting house was vandalized and envelopes filled with white powder were sent anonymously to church headquarters.

"The moral footings of society continue to slip," Monson told the 20,000-plus who packed a church conference center in downtown Salt Lake City. "While those who attempt to safeguard those footings are often ridiculed, picketed and persecuted … It would be easy to become discouraged and cynical about the future — or even fearful or what might come — if we allowed ourselves to dwell on only which is wrong in the world and in our lives."

Mormons hold traditional marriage as a sacred institution and a critical part of God’s plan for humanity. Homosexual sex is considered a sin, but gays are welcome in the church and can maintain church callings if they remain celibate.

The Mormon church does not endorse political candidates or political parties, but speaks out on issues its leaders consider morally important. The faith has been active in fighting marriage equality legislation across the U.S. since the 1990s and, in 2006, joined other faiths in asking Congress for a marriage amendment to the Constitution.

The church has said, however, that it does not oppose civil unions or legal rights for same-sex couples related to hospitalization, medical care, housing or probate as long as these "do not infringe on the integrity of the traditional family or the constitutional rights of churches."

Acting on a June letter from Monson, California Mormons were among the most vigorous volunteers and financial contributors, donating an estimated $16 million to the Yes on 8 campaign — about half of what was raised.

Campaign finance reports show the institutional church gave nearly $190,000 to the campaign. Those contributions are now being investigated by California’s Fair Political Practices Commission.

Church statistics show worldwide church membership grew to about 13.5 million in 2008, up from about 13.1 million in 2007.

Founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith, Jr., in western New York, the Mormon church is now in more than 170 countries. Some say the faith is among the world’s fastest growing religions.

Mormons gather in April and October to hear words of inspiration and practical guidance from leaders of their faith.

Two two-day event draws tens of thousands to the downtown Salt Lake City conference center for five two-hour sessions. Millions more watch the proceedings — translated into some 80 languages — via broadcasts over the Internet, by satellite and closed circuit television.

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