19/11/2015 12h29 GMT

by Jocelyne Zablit

Los Angeles (AFP) – The conservative US state of Utah, home to the influential Mormon church, has come under the national spotlight in recent days over its treatment of gays, earning both praise and condemnation.

The capital Salt Lake City grabbed headlines on Wednesday for electing Jackie Biskupski, its first openly gay mayor, in a vote hailed as historic by gay rights groups.

But at the same time, two recent decisions concerning same-sex couples — one by the Mormon church, which is based in Salt Lake City, and one by a judge — have prompted an uproar and raised concerns that Utah was backtracking on small strides toward acceptance of the LGBT community.

In the first case, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — as the Mormon church is formally known — earlier this month declared that children of gay couples cannot be blessed as babies or baptized until they turn 18.

Once they reach that age, they will have to disavow same-sex marriage and no longer be living with their parents in order to join the church.

In the letter to lay leaders of its 30,000 congregations around the world, the church also explained that Mormons in same-sex marriages are considered apostates and as such could be excommunicated.

In the second case, a Utah judge last week ordered a lesbian couple to give up their foster baby on grounds the child would be better off with a heterosexual family. The judge later rescinded his order and recused himself from the case following an uproar.

– ‘We defy stereotypes’ –

Rights groups say the two cases are worrisome and fly in the face of national advances on gay rights.

They also point out that both unfolded against a backdrop of significant strides forward for the LGBT community in Utah, including Biskupski’s election this week.

“The irony is not lost on any of us here,” Troy Williams, the head of Equality Utah, a gay rights group, told AFP.

“Utah is full of surprises,” he added. “We defy stereotypes every step of the way.”

Williams pointed out that while the state overall was conservative, a recent Gallup poll showed that the capital Salt Lake City had a higher percentage of LGBT residents than New York.

Relations between Salt Lake City’s gay community and the Mormon church …. Read more