By Jennifer Dobner
SALT LAKE CITY, March 18 (Reuters) - A group of Mormon women seeking access to a male-only session of the faith's semi-annual conference with church leaders have been rebuffed and warned that they may be kept off church grounds if they try to get in.
Ordain Women, which has pressed the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to ordain female members to the priesthood, sought 250 tickets to the meeting, which is part of a weekend devotional held at the faith's headquarters in Salt Lake City.
The request was denied in a letter sent to the group on Monday through the church's public affairs office.
"The priesthood session of general conference is designed to strengthen men and boys as they receive specific instruction about their roles and responsibilities; therefore we are unable to fill your request," the letter read. It was signed by church spokeswoman Jessica Moody.
The women were invited instead to watch the proceedings on television, on the Internet, or by satellite feeds, and to participate in a separate women-only conference that will precede the General Conference, scheduled for April 5 and 6.
The church also asked that if Ordain Women insisted on demonstrating, members restrict activities to "free speech zones" set up around the church's four-block campus in downtown Salt Lake City, which includes a 21,000-seat conference center and the Salt Lake Temple.
Those areas are on city sidewalks and are typicality used by evangelical Christians who regularly picket the conference.
"Activist events like this detract from the sacred environment of Temple Square and the spirit of harmony sought at General Conference," the letter stated. "Please reconsider."
"Obviously we're disappointed," Ordain Women spokeswoman Lorie Winder said. She said members of the group still planned to line up outside the church conference center to gain entrance to the Saturday night priesthood meeting.
Winder said it was hurtful and troubling that the letter had branded Ordain Women, all members in good standing of the church, as protesters and outsiders.
"We're not protestors. We don't belong out on the sidewalk," she said. "We are men and women who have given countless hours to the church and we see our efforts with Ordain as a continuation of that."
Although women are allowed to serve church mission and hold some leadership roles, only Mormon men can be ordained into the faith's lay ministry. Boys are made priests at age 12 and are given increasing responsibility as they age, including serving as congregational leaders. Only men are allowed to perform some sacred rites, such as blessing a child.
Last October, more than 200 members of Ordain Women lined up outside the church conference center, seeking entrance to priesthood session, but were turned away. In response to advance publicity of Ordain Women's intention, the church announced it would live broadcast the priesthood session for the first time. (Editing by Dan Whitcomb)