Despite its deep opposition to same-sex marriage, a high-ranking apostle of the Mormon church has said that Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who refused to grant licenses to same-sex couple, had a duty to follow the law.

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Despite its deep opposition to same-sex marriage, the Mormon church is setting itself apart from religious conservatives who rallied behind a Kentucky county clerk, Kim Davis, who cited her religious beliefs as justification for refusing to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

In a speech this week about the boundaries between church and state, Dallin Oaks, a high-ranking apostle in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said that public officials like Davis, the clerk in Rowan County, Ky., had a duty to follow the law despite their religious convictions.

“Office holders remain free to draw upon their personal beliefs and motivations and advocate their positions in the public square,” Oaks said. “But when acting as public officials, they are not free to apply personal convictions — religious or other — in place of the defined responsibilities of their public offices. All government officers should exercise their civil authority according to the principles and within the limits of civil government.”

Referring to Davis without naming her, Oaks continued: “A county clerk’s recent invoking of religious reasons to justify refusal by her office and staff to issue marriage licenses to same-gender couples violates this principle.”

Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, called the speech a “pretty big deal” that embraced compromise over conflict.

The church has not changed its opposition to same-sex marriage, he noted, but it has also rejected the all-out opposition embodied by Davis as well as calls from some conservative groups for public officials to reject the Supreme Court’s marriage ruling.

“They’re not going down that road,” Rauch said. Paraphrasing the church’s view, he said, the Mormons were saying: “Count us out — we will not have any part of massive resistance. We’re going to go through the channels of political dialogue and compromise.”

But Mathew Staver, a lawyer for Davis, criticized Oaks’ remarks, saying the Mormon leader was essentially advocating a view that granted no religious protections or rights to people in public office.

“It’s misinformed both about the case of Kim Davis and is shortsighted with respect to religious freedom and the right of conscience,” Staver said. “The church is going to face these kinds of issues.”

The Mormon church once stood at the forefront of the fight against same-sex marriage with its support of a 2008 California ballot measure known as Proposition 8 that limited marriage to a man and a woman.

But that advocacy brought a backlash from outside the church as well as from its own members, and since then, the church has modulated its tone and positions on some gay-rights issues.

This year, Mormon leaders supported a law passed by Utah’s Republican-dominated state government that outlawed housing and employment discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Called the “Utah compromise,” it exempted religious groups that object to homosexuality.

The Mormon church itself joined other religious groups in filing briefs with the Supreme Court opposing same-sex marriage. After the court’s decision in June, the Mormon church said it would not perform same-sex marriages or allow church property to be used for same-sex weddings or receptions.

The changes in the law, it said, “do not, indeed cannot, change the moral law that God has established.”

But in his speech Tuesday, to an audience of legal and clergy officials in Sacramento, Calif., Oaks addressed his “fellow believers” by saying that religious freedom should not be asserted “to override every law and government action that could possibly be interpreted to infringe on institutional or personal religious freedom.”