SALT LAKE CITY — Mormon Alex Landers supports the legalization of gay marriage despite her religion's opposition for a simple reason: She has LGBTQ friends who she loves and respects, including her best friend who is a bisexual man.
"I can't look at him and his boyfriend and tell them that they can't be happy and they can't love each other," said Landers, 20, of Draper, Utah. "Heavenly Father loves us for who we are. He wants us to be happy, as long as we're treating people well and we're being who we truly are and we're not hurting anyone."
She is among a growing number of young Mormons driving the faith's gradual acceptance of same-sex marriages, even though the religion's support still lags well behind national approval and those of Catholics, Muslims and Jews, according to the survey released this week by the Public Religion Research Institute.
The survey found that 40 percent of Mormons in the United States supported gay marriage in 2017, up from 27 percent in 2014.
Among Mormons between the ages of 18-29, the acceptance is 52 percent. That's up from 43 percent in 2014.
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who are 65 and older have the lowest rate of support at 32 percent, according a survey based on about 40,000 phone interviews done last year. That's up from 18 percent in 2014.
Nationally, 61 percent of Americans support gay marriage, up from 52 percent in 2013.
The Utah-based religion of 16 million worldwide members has held firm to its opposition of gay marriage and homosexual activity while trying to foster an empathetic stance toward LGBTQ people.
Last year, church leaders updated a website to advise that attraction to people of the same sex is not a sin or a measure of their faithfulness and may never go away. But the church reminded members that being in an intimate same-sex relationship is a sin.
Among religious groups included in the survey, only white evangelical Protestants and Jehovah's Witnesses had lower levels of support for gay marriage. Support was higher among Catholics (about 65 percent), Muslims (51 percent) and Jews (77 percent).
The survey found that Mormons had the largest gap between support for gay marriage and support for anti-discrimination laws to protect LGBT people. While only 40 percent of Mormons favor gay marriage, 69 percent support anti-discrimination laws.
Luis Miranda, a 30-year-old heterosexual Mormon, said he wasn't surprised by the survey results because he senses a shifting tone among other young Mormons in the singles congregation he attends.
He said he grew up as a Catholic in Guatemala believing that traditional marriage between a man and a woman was sacred and important. He continued to hold that belief after he moved to Utah as a teenager and converted to Mormonism.
But as he grew older, he realized he needed to meet and spend more time with gays and lesbians. "I realized they were just as beautiful and loving with each other, and as pure as anyone else," said Miranda, of Salt Lake City.
Miranda said he sometimes struggles to reconcile his opinion with what church leaders are teaching. He believes Mormon leaders have good intentions. He is committed to remain in the religion to be a voice of support for gay marriage.
He finds hope in the fact that the religion believes church doctrine can be altered through revelations from God. That's how the church explained why it lifted the ban on blacks in the religion's lay priesthood in 1978.
"If it's happened before, it could happen again," Miranda said.