(Adds group's count on number of participants)
By Jennifer Dobner
SALT LAKE CITY, April 5 (Reuters) - Hundreds of Mormon women who want ecclesiastical equality were denied admittance to a male-only session of their faith's spring conference on Saturday, in their bid to promote the ordination of women into the lay priesthood.
Adorned in purple, members of Ordain Women marched through a hailstorm from a park to the Salt Lake Tabernacle on Temple Square, the heart of a four-block campus that is the global home of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They were seeking unfilled seats at the evening priesthood meeting at the faith's semi-annual conference.
This follows the group's attempt last fall to gain admittance to the meeting. The actions have led to tensions between church officials and the women, who say they are steadfast in their faith but want to play a more significant role in the life of a religion that claims over 15 million adherents worldwide.
One by one, the women and some male supporters were politely turned away by a church spokeswoman. High school student Emma Tueller, 16, fought back tears after the rejection, which came with a hug from the church representative, who encouraged her to watch the proceedings of the meeting online.
Tueller, a Provo, Utah, resident, joined Ordain Women in the previous action last fall.
"This time it was more painful," she said. "I love this church and I think my personal gifts and my personal talents could be much better utilized if I had the priesthood."
In advance of Saturday's event, church officials had asked Ordain Women to refrain from bringing their cause to Temple Square, saying it would detract from the "spirit of harmony" at the two-day conference, which includes four events open to both genders and the male-only priesthood meeting.
In a statement late on Saturday, church officials expressed displeasure with what they called the women's "refusal to accept ushers' directions and refusing to leave when asked."
Ordain Women has objected to being characterized by the church as protesters.
"We're not activists. We're not protesters," said Kate Kelly, a Washington, D.C.-based human rights attorney and lifetime Mormon who last year co-founded the group with about 20 other women.
"We're people on the inside. We are investing in an institution ... not critiquing it to tear it down," she said.
Men ordained to the priesthood in the Mormon church can perform religious rituals, including baptisms, confirmations or blessings and can be called to lead congregations.
Boys enter into the priesthood as deacons at age 12 and grow in authority and responsibility as they get older or are called to service by more senior church leaders.
Initially, about 200 people appeared to be taking part in the action, but a spokeswoman for the group put the number of participants at 510.
Women are powerless in matters of church governance and can make no autonomous decisions, even at the highest levels, Kelly said.
Church officials declined an interview request in advance of Saturday's event.
"Ordination of women to the priesthood is a matter of doctrine that is contrary to the Lord's revealed organization for His Church," said last month's church letter to the group.
Outside the gates to Temple Square, church member Nate Brown said he doesn't object to the idea of women in the priesthood, but doesn't like the tactics of Ordain Women.
"I perceive (their asking) not as a civil action, but more of a challenge of church leaders," said Brown, 59, who came from Salem, Oregon, for the conference.
Brown is not alone. A 2011 Pew Research study found Mormons overwhelmingly disapprove of women joining the lay priesthood.
But Brown said he would welcome the ordination of women if a church president, whom Mormons consider a prophet who communicates with God, changed church policies.
"I believe in following the prophet," Brown said.
Since Ordain Women first pushed their cause last fall, church leaders have taken some actions to show their regard for women. For the first time, a woman was asked to pray at the conference and the men's priesthood meeting was broadcast live on cable television and the Internet.
That's a far cry from the 1990s when the faith's leaders excommunicated some women who advocated for gender equity, said Nadine Hansen, a lifetime church member and an attorney who published her first article about women's ordination nearly 30 years ago.
"I appreciate the changes they are making," said Hansen. "They are listening." (Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis, Kevin Murphy, Michael Urquhart and Ron Popeski)