Mormon women seeking tickets to the faith's general priesthood session next month will not only be denied access to that all-male meeting, but also may be shut out of Salt Lake City's historic Temple Square altogether.

On Monday, the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints formally rebuffed Ordain Women's second push for entrance to the priesthood session and urged the grass-roots group to "demonstrate" instead in "free-speech zones adjacent to Temple Square, which have long been established for those wishing to voice differing viewpoints."

LDS officials also are barring news media cameras from the square during their two-day General Conference, which the church says is "consistent with long-standing policy." That policy may apply to Temple Square generally, but media photographers have routinely shot photos there during the church's twice-yearly gatherings.

A "large majority" of Mormon women do not share Ordain Women's "advocacy for priesthood ordination for women," church spokeswoman Jessica Moody wrote Monday to the group's organizers, and such activism "detracts from the helpful discussions" that the LDS Church is having with others on women's issues.

"Ordination of women to the priesthood," the spokeswoman adds, "is a matter of doctrine that is contrary to the Lord's revealed organization for his church."

The March 17 letter coincides with Ordain Women's first anniversary and the 172nd anniversary of the Relief Society, Mormonism's women's organization, which was formed in 1842.

"We are disappointed that we weren't granted tickets," says Kate Kelly, one of the founders of Ordain Women. "But it is a positive step that public affairs is responding to us, indicating that one day maybe the higher authorities will be able to hear our concerns."

Kelly, a practicing Latter-day Saint and human-rights attorney in Washington, D.C., took umbrage at the suggestion that Ordain Women and its allies take their place beside protesters who routinely picket the LDS Church during its General Conferences.

"We have nothing in common with those people," says Kelly, who served an 18-month mission for the faith. "They are seeking to destroy the church. We are not against the church — we ARE the church."

In October, more than 100 women sought to gain entrance to the all-male LDS priesthood meeting, held in the Conference Center across the street from Temple Square. They approached the Tabernacle door, where standby tickets were distributed. One by one, they asked for admittance. One by one, they were turned away — as news cameras captured the episode.

"We faithfully, responsibly and quietly gathered and asked to go in, wanting to demonstrate to the Lord that we are ready for the priesthood," Kelly says. "We are going to go there again."

And she does not expect to be barred in the attempt.

It would be "unprecedented to deny a group of faithful women entrance to Temple Square, a place that we consider holy ground," Kelly says. "It would be extremely disconcerting."

Moody's letter invites the women to "view the live broadcast of the priesthood session on lds.org, the Mormon Channel or BYUtv." Last fall, the LDS Church broadcast the all-male meeting live for the first time.

The church "has regretfully upped the ante," says Steve Evans, a Salt Lake City attorney and Mormon blogger. "The repeat of last year's activity was not destined to gain as much press as before, but now things have changed. If it not only refuses entry to these women but also forces them off of Temple Square, the church may inadvertently send the message that it feels threatened by the Ordain Women movement."

Mormons need to see that their church "is open to serious, faithful conversation about the role of women in God's organization," says Evans, a founder of the LDS blog, By Common Consent. "This response probably sends the wrong message."

It's also a "PR disaster for the church," says Kristine Haglund, editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. "Goliath is never going to get better press than David — the optics are terrible."

And unnecessary, she says, given that Ordain Women had announced that April's conference would be the second and final time the group planned to seek priesthood tickets.

Even so, most Mormon women wouldn't be lining up for tickets or ordination. A 2011 Pew Research Center national survey found that 90 percent of LDS women and 84 percent of men oppose allowing women to enter the Mormon priesthood.

Nevertheless, the church's letter may have unwittingly created sympathy among some Mormons who were not ready to join the Ordain Women movement.

"Ordination is not my bosom-burning cause. But I am tired of seeing women I love leave the faith because there is no serious, open respectful conversation within the church about issues that matter to them and because they are stigmatized and rejected when they dare to ask the questions," LDS scholar and writer Joanna Brookswrites at Feminist Mormon Housewives. "Today, again, the church sought to push out women who are asking the questions."

Brooks respects Ordain Women's efforts to advance "serious conversation about women's equality in Mormonism," she writes. "I will stand with them this April 5."

As to the question of Mormon doctrine, Kelly says there is "no scripture or statement by any prophet or apostle that says women cannot be ordained."

The Bible, she notes, has several examples of women who were "prophetesses or apostles."

Kelly points to the LDS Church's ninth Article of Faith, which reads in part, "We believe that [God] will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God."   

That could include ordination of women, she says. "That is what we are praying for."

pstack@sltrib.com

Twitter: @religiongal