By Jennifer Dobner
SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - A group of 500 Mormon women who want ecclesiastical equality with men are expected to seek admittance to a male-only session of the faith's spring conference on Saturday, as they promote the ordination of women into the lay priesthood of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Adorned in purple, members of Ordain Women plan to march from a park to the Salt Lake Tabernacle on Temple Square, the heart of a four-block campus that is the church's global home.
They will stand in line for seats to the evening priesthood meeting at a semi-annual two-day conference, after last month church officials rebuffed their request for advance tickets to that meeting.
In a letter, the church said "activist events" such as the group's attempt at entry detract from the sacred environment of Temple Square and the "spirit of harmony" during the two-day conference which includes four events open to both genders and the male-only priesthood meeting.
"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.
They also control all administrative and fiscal affairs of the church. Boys enter into the priesthood as deacons at age 12 and grow in authority and responsibility as they age or are called to service by more senior church leaders.
Women are powerless in matters of church governance and can make no autonomous decisions, even at the highest levels, Kelly said.
"We really want to have the priesthood so that we can spiritually grow and so that we can fully participate," said Kelly, 33, a graduate of the church-owned Brigham Young University who also served a church mission.
Church officials declined an interview request.
"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.
'FREE SPEECH ZONES'
In recent public statements, Mormon church leaders have maintained a majority of Latter-day Saints don't support the ordination of women. A 2011 Pew Research poll found 87 percent of U.S. Mormons - 90 percent of women and 84 percent of men - believed women should not be eligible for priesthood.
Kelly rejects the survey as outdated and said it should not be viewed as a fair representation of what Mormons believe.
Last fall, Ordain Women made a similar attempt to enter a priesthood meeting.
That request also was rejected, but church leaders did take some actions to show their regard for women. For the first time, a woman was asked to pray at conference and the men's priesthood meeting was broadcast live on cable television and the Internet.
Such gestures suggest the faith's senior leaders are keenly aware of the voice of Mormon feminists, said David Howlett, a visiting professor of religion at Skidmore College.
"It hasn't fundamentally changed the kind of structures that can perpetuate patriarchy, but it's creating a certain space for small changes where maybe larger changes can come in the future," he said.
Church leaders have asked Ordain Women not to enter Temple Square on Saturday, but to limit their actions to established "free speech zones." Those areas surround the square on city sidewalks and during the conference are typically populated with evangelical Christians calling Mormonism a cult.
News cameras and reporters are barred from going onto the Temple Square grounds to conduct interviews.
(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis)