SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — For the first time in the event's 183-year history, a woman led a prayer Saturday at the semiannual gathering of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Jean A. Stevens led the morning session's closing prayer for the more than 100,000 Mormons gathered in Salt Lake City for the two-day general conference, and the millions more watching via satellite, radio or Internet broadcast.
Among other church roles, Stevens is member of a three-person board that advises and assists parents on teaching their children about the faith, which has more than 14 million members worldwide.
A feminist group launched a campaign earlier this year asking church leaders to let women lead the opening and closing prayer — a first for the conference — as a symbol of gender equality.
Women hold leadership positions in the Mormon church but aren't allowed to be bishops or presidents of stakes, which are geographic areas similar to Catholic dioceses. At past conferences, women have regularly given speeches and could pray in the audience.
The "Let Women Pray" campaign was launched in January from the same group that drew national attention in December by urging women to wear pants to church rather than skirts or dresses to raise awareness about what they perceive as gender inequality within Mormon culture.
Amber Whiteley, 23, of St. Louis, was one of the campaign organizers and said Saturday she was "thrilled" and couldn't stop smiling when she heard the news.
"I think it shows that it was really compassionate on the church's behalf ... that women are really important in the church and that women's voices matter," she said Saturday.
It also shows that "women's prayers matter as much as men's," Whiteley said.
Church spokesman Eric Hawkins said Mormon leaders late last year decided who would be leading the conference prayers, which is before the women prayer campaign was launched.
Hawkins did not elaborate on why Stevens was selected, but said leaders of the church are the ones chosen to give the invocation and benediction.
Earlier Saturday, Thomas S. Monson, the faith's president, announced the church is planning to build two new temples, in Rio de Janeiro and Cedar City, Utah.