Gay people are the same as “druggies and hookers,” according to full page adverts carried by major newspapers in Utah over the weekend.

The ads, from a group called America Forever, said homosexuality is “anti-species behaviour,” and opposed moves to grant equal rights to same-sex couples in the state.

Salt Lake Tribune editor Nancy Conway defended the decision to publish the hate ad in her paper, citing freedom of speech.

“We didn’t see [the ad] until we saw it in the paper,” she told the Tribune.

“Advertising and news are entirely separate.

“We would be hypocrites, really, if we didn’t allow expression.”

Mike Thompson of gay advocacy group Equality Utah, said:

“It demonstrates what we are up against in having a rational debate.

“There’s no reason to respond directly to the content of the ad because it’s just ridiculous. The conversation should be focused on the Common Ground Initiative.”

Nearly 60% of Utah residents are members of the Church of Jesus and the Latter Day Saints, known as Mormons, and the Church has a strong influence on the state’s culture and attitudes.

The Initiative was designed as a response to statements by leaders of the Mormon Church that it does not oppose civil unions or other measures aimed at moving LGBT people toward equality under the law.

It includes measures designed to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in employment and housing, provide benefits for State of Utah employees and their adult designees, provide inheritance rights and other protections to adults who enter into a declaration of joint support, and repeal part of an amendment to the state constitution that prohibits civil unions.

Last week Utah’s Governor, John Huntsman, gave his backing to the Initiative.

In 2004 the state constitution was altered after a state ballot was approved that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

Governor Huntsman said that in his opinion that ballot measure does not need to be changed to allow civil unions, though he is not in support of gay marriage.

He said he wished to “do a better job in enhancing equal rights for more of our citizens.”

America Forever’s website states:

“Exposing children to this environment of homosexual unions would deprive them of their necessary defences and contribute to the spread of the homosexual propaganda.

“It is imperative to recognise that the approval or legalisation of the homosexual act is something far different from the toleration of it.

“They are already allowed to acquire sexual pleasure with whomever they wish, therefore they are already tolerated. The children however need to be protected as they have been in the past.

“They must be protected until they are 18, from the act of masturbation and therefore cannot be allowed to be exposed to homosexual unions.”

A leading Utah politician who opposes equality for gay people admitted to the Tribune that America Forever’s adverts may have done more harm than good.

“Quite frankly, they make those of us who are on the side of traditional marriage — they make a lot of us — look bad,” said state Representative Carl Wimmer.

Click here to view the advert.