Mormon church says it will back LGBT rights – but only if the US government allows it to assert its religious beliefs

'We must all learn to live with others who do not share the same beliefs or values', Mormon elders said

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The Mormon church has expressed support for new laws that protect gay rights – but there’s a catch.

At a rare press conference in Salt Lake City yesterday, Mormon leaders backed calls to protect lesbian, bisexual and transgender people from discrimination, but only on the condition the US government and rights groups back off and allow them to assert their religious beliefs towards gay people.

“We must all learn to live with others who do not share the same beliefs or values,” three elders from a high-level Mormon governing body called the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said.

However, they did not explain just how it would draw lines between gay rights and religious freedoms, and it's unclear how much common ground the church will gain with this campaign.

The move has come in for some hefty criticism, with Sarah Warbelow, legal director for the Human Rights Campaign, calling it “deeply flawed”.

James Esskes, who directs the LGBT project of the American Civil Liberties Union, said: “The First Amendment's protection of religious freedom “does not give any of us the right to harm others, and that's what it sounds like the proposal from the Mormon church would do - it would allow a doctor to refuse to care for a lesbian because of his religious beliefs, for example.”

The church insists it is making no changes in doctrine, and still believes that sex is against the law of God unless it's within a marriage between a man and a woman.

Regardless of any apparent inconsistencies, the new approach could profoundly change political calculations in the Mormon strongholds of Utah, Idaho, Nevada and Arizona, where the church and its members play a large civic role.

“What the LDS church did today was historic,” said state Sen. Jim Dabakis, who was raised Mormon and is openly gay. “This was a bold, strong, principled statement ... today we are seeing the fruits of civility and respect.”

The gay-rights group Equality Utah also applauded, saying LGBT rights can co-exist with freedoms of religious individuals.

The campaign is the latest example of a shift in tone on gay rights by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which counts 15 million members worldwide. They have moved away from harsh rhetoric in recent years, and are preaching compassion and acceptance of gays and lesbians now that gay marriage is legal in Washington D.C. and 36 states including Utah.