OGDEN -- The timing of members of the Congregational United Church of Christ voting to declare themselves an "open and affirming" church has coincided with the legalizing of gay marriage in the United States.
The congregation approved through a vote the designation on June 16.
But the stance was a long time in coming. The statement was approved by the congregation following a study that lasted nearly 10 months.
And the church's leader, the Rev. Gage Church, who is openly gay, said the move will send the right message to those who live with homosexuality, no matter if they ever choose to come to his church or not.
"We feel that with the high rate of suicide, even if they never walk through our doors, if they hear that we are a religious institution that accepts them for the way they are, that will be something that can help them hold on," Church said.
"Most houses of faith say you are welcome," he said. "I think they mean it. People of different gender identities, for some reason, they don't feel accepted."
"Open and Affirming" is a designation within the United Church of Christ denomination that means the local church is welcoming of all people, including those of any sexual orientation. The Ogden church is the 1,117th in the UCC out of about 8,000 churches to declare itself as such, according to information released by the church.
UCC churches in Kanab, Provo, Holladay, Vernal and Bountiful also have previously declared themselves to be "Open and Affirming."
A statement approved by the Congregational United Church of Christ reads: "We seek to be a community of Christian believers who respect one another's differences regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or family structure.
"We welcome all individuals - be they lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered or heterosexual -- and all families -- be they single parents, couples, nuclear, blended, extended or step-parents -- as they strive to function faithfully in response to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and Christ's principles of love, justice, grace and mercy.
"Congregational United Church of Christ, Ogden, Utah, declares itself to be Open and Affirming of women and men of all ages, races, abilities and sexual orientations who desire to share in its services, its leadership and its activities."
"Our members believe it is important to make this declaration because our LBGT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) sisters and brothers are left out of so many houses of faith," Church said in an official statement.
Church said the committee studying the issue at the church looked at all possible aspects of making such a declaration.
He said members were allowed many opportunities to voice their support for or concern over the move.
A number of people were given opportunities to share information about various family situations and family groups.
During April and May, members of the Holladay United Church of Christ, which had already made the declaration, and other groups, including Ogden OUTreach, a local group that has programs to support gay and lesbian youths, gave talks about what it meant to have a different types of families and what it meant to come out.
The church's efforts have received support from other churches in the area.
"We believe that God includes everybody and so should we," said the Rev. Vanessa Cato, the priest at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Ogden, who is not gay.
"We declare ourselves to be inclusive."
Cato, who is fairly new to the Ogden congregation, said she didn't know how long it had been but that her church was "open and inclusive."
"We have a (gay and lesbian) group, Integrity, that meets here," she said. "It's supported by our leadership."
She said members there, both gay and straight, participated in the pride march in Salt Lake City.
"We are currently looking into providing support for the Ogden OUTreach group," she said. "We are in discussion about possibly extending the program and using our property."
"I was very pleased that the Ogden's CUCC has voted to be an Open and Affirming Congregation," wrote the Rev. Theresa Novak, of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ogden, who is a lesbian.
"Their process is I think fairly similar to the one we have in the Unitarian Universalist Association, which we call the Welcoming Congregation. The UU Church of Ogden went through this process back in the early 90s shortly after the Church was established here in Ogden."
Novak said at her church, there was a period of study and reflection, and then the members of the congregation voted to be publicly designated as a church that not only welcomes the full participation of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in church life, but also commits to affirming and promoting full equality and acceptance in the wider culture.
"Nationally, the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ work together on a wide variety of issues, including GLBT rights and marriage equality," she wrote.
"Locally, our two congregations also get along very well and have even held a couple of joint worship services. I am very happy for them and also proud of them for taking this important step."
Novak said that people who are GLBT are as diverse in their religious beliefs as the rest of the population and should be able to choose the church that speaks most to their hearts and souls.
"It will be a wonderful day when all faith traditions are fully welcoming and affirming. That day will come, even here in Utah," she wrote. "With study, reflection, and prayer, hearts can be opened and God's love will eventually shine through the clouds of ignorance and fear."