Flowers bloom in front of the Salt Lake Temple, at Temple Square, on Aug. 4, 2015, in Salt Lake City. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022, came out in support of The Respect for Marriage Act under consideration in Congress after years of opposing recognition of same-sex marriage. Credit: Rick Bowmer / AP

SALT LAKE CITY — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said Tuesday it supports proposed federal legislation to safeguard same-sex marriages in the lead-up to an expected Wednesday vote on the measure backed by U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.

The 17-million member faith said in a statement that church doctrine would continue to consider same-sex relationships against God’s commandments, yet would support rights for same-sex couples as long as they didn’t infringe upon religious groups’ right to believe as they choose.

“We believe this approach is the way forward. As we work together to preserve the principles and practices of religious freedom together with the rights of LGBTQ individuals, much can be accomplished to heal relationships and foster greater understanding,” a spokesperson said.

Support for the Respect for Marriage Act under consideration in Congress is the church’s latest step to stake out a more welcoming stance toward the LGBTQ community while holding firm to its belief that same-sex relationships are sinful.

Patrick Mason, a professor of religious studies at Utah State University, said the church’s position was both a departure from and continuation of its past stances — respecting laws yet working to safeguard religious liberty and ensuring they won’t be forced to perform same-sex marriages or grant them official church sanction.

“This is part of the church’s overall theology essentially sustaining the law of the land, recognizing that what they dictate and enforce for their members in terms of their behavior is different than what it means to be part of a pluralistic society,” he said.

The faith opposes same-sex marriage and sexual intimacy, but it has taken a more welcoming stance to LGBTQ people in recent years. In 2016, it declared that same-sex attraction is not a sin, while maintaining that acting on it was.

The bill, which has won support from Democrats and Republicans, is set for a test vote in the Senate on the legislation Wednesday, with a final vote as soon as this week or later this month. Collins is a lead Republican sponsor of the measure.

“The Respect for Marriage Act is a needed step to provide millions of loving couples in same-sex and interracial marriages the certainty that they will continue to enjoy the freedoms, rights, and responsibilities afforded to all other marriages,” Collins and other senators behind the measure, including lead backer U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, in a statement.

It comes after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion, with Justice Clarence Thomas issuing a concurring opinion indicating that an earlier high court decision protecting same-sex marriage could come under threat.

The legislation would repeal the Clinton-era Defense of Marriage Act and require states to recognize all marriages that were legal where they were performed. It makes clear that the rights of private individuals and businesses wouldn’t be affected.

Utah’s four congressmen — who are all Latter-day Saints — each came out in support of the legislation earlier this year.

The church’s public stance is a dramatic departure from 14 years ago, when it was the largest campaign contributor in support of California’s Prop. 8, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman in response to cities such as San Francisco granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

It has since made incremental changes, including allowing the children of same-sex couples to get baptized. Yet its stance toward LGBTQ people — including those who grow up in the church — remains painful for many.

Troy Williams, the executive director of Equality Utah, said it was “thrilling” to see the church part of the coalition in support of the legislation.

“Despite differences we may have, we can always discover common ground on laws that support the strengthening of all families,” Williams, who grew up a church member, said.

The faith opposes anti-discrimination laws that would limit the rights of businesses and individuals who object to same-sex marriage or force religious groups to accept same-sex couples who want to marry in their churches or on their property. But it has supported state-based efforts to pass laws that prohibit employment and housing discrimination as long as they clarify respect for religious freedom.

Story by Sam Metz. AP News Editor Brady McCombs and BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.