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Mormon Women Given Increased Role In 2 Key Ceremonies

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said Wednesday the faith will allow women to be official "witnesses" at two key ceremonies where they were previously only allowed to observe in the latest small step toward breaking down rigid gender roles in the religion.

Church President Russell M. Nelson said in a news release that the policy change allows women to serve as witnesses at baptisms for the living and dead and at a ceremony inside church temples for married couples called a “sealing,” which the faith believes unites the couple for eternity.


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Only men had been allowed to be official witnesses previously. Women still won’t be allowed to perform the baptism or sealing ceremonies.


Nelson explained in the release that the “adjustments allow for covenants to be planted in the hearts of people living in different times and circumstances.” The change comes ahead of the faith’s twice-annual conference in Salt Lake City and marks another significant change Nelson has made since he assumed the top spot in the faith in early 2018. He previously revised a sacred temple ceremony to give women a more prominent role.


The Utah-based faith of 16 million members worldwide, widely known as the Mormon church, reserves the priesthood and the highest leadership positions for men but has made several changes in recent years to involve women more amid a heightened push for equality by Latter-day Saints’ women’s groups.

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The changes have included appointing women to three high-level church councils previously reserved only for men; allowing women who work at church headquarters to wear pantsuits or dress slacks instead of skirts or dresses; and allowing woman to lead the opening prayer at the faith’s twice-yearly conference.


Feminist advocates within the religion applauded the move but said much is left to be done for full equality that many believe should include allowing women to be ordained.


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“This is a definitely a step forward, and it’s exciting,” said Debra Jenson, a church member and supporter of the Ordain Women’s group. “But there’s still quite a ways to go. Full equality means full equality. We’ll celebrate this and we will keep pushing forward.”


Jenson said women should also be allowed to conduct the baptisms and sealings, and not just be the witnesses.


Mary Ellen Robertson said the long-overdue move hopefully signals more changes that will recognize the vital role women play in the faith.


“Women do a lot of unsung work in the church and do a lot behind the scenes to keep it running,” said Robertson, a longtime advocate for women’s equality in the faith. “I would like to see more opportunities for women to serve in visible, public ways.”


Women hold leadership positions in the Mormon church but aren’t allowed to be bishops of local congregations or presidents of stakes, which are geographic areas similar to Catholic dioceses. The church’s highest leaders, including the president and his support group called the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, includes only men.


Latter-day Saints women’s groups have escalated their advocacy in recent years, fueled by growing online and social media communities that allow women from around the country and world to unite and discuss the causes they want to champion.


They’ve celebrated several victories even as they seek more meaningful reform.


In 2017, the church changed rules to allow women who work at church headquarters in Salt Lake City to wear pantsuits and dress slacks instead of only skirts or dresses.


In 2015, the church for the first time appointed women to three high-level church councils previously reserved only for men. In April 2013, history was made when a woman led the opening prayer at the faith’s semiannual general conference in Salt Lake City.


A 2012 rule change lowering the minimum age for missionaries, from 21 to 19 for women, opened the door for many more young women to fit in 1 ½-year missions in before they start careers or get married and start families.


The latest change was announced in a news release that included highlights from a meeting Wednesday morning between Nelson and other high-ranking leaders in the church.


In that meeting, the second-highest ranking member of the faith, Dallin H. Oaks, reaffirmed the faith’s opposition to gay marriage and belief that one’s God-given gender is “essential to the plan of salvation.” The faith teaches that homosexual relations are a sin, while urging members to be kind to LGBTQ people.


In that vein, Oaks told members to be understanding and respectful with LGTQ people, while questioning why they are like they are.


“We do not know why same-sex attraction and confusion about sexual identity occur,” Oaks said. “They are among the challenges that persons can experience in mortality, which is only a tiny fraction of our eternal existence.”