When Mariners Church Fired Choir Director Bob Gunn for Being Gay, It Sparked a Six-Year Legal Battle

Out of Tune
Bob Gunn helped Mariners Church become an evangelical giant. Then the church fired him for being gay, and they’ve been in and out of court since

For five years, Cheri Liefeld kept a damning secret: Bob Gunn was gay.

Gunn was in the closet for an obvious reason. He worked as a worship director at Mariners Church in Irvine, one of the largest megachurches in the United States and an evangelical powerhouse in a county that’s a petri dish for American Christianity. The professional musician headed the musical aspects of Mariners, which included serving as spiritual adviser to the 100-member-plus choir and setting the mood for prayer at all services—which were increasing by the hundreds seemingly every weekend. Before head Pastor Kenton Beshore launched into one of his witty, thoughtful sermons, Gunn filled the crowd with the Spirit, gently coaxing beautiful chords out of a grand piano to honor the Lord.

Bob Gunn, now associate conductor for the Orange County Gay Men's Chorus, Men Alive
Drew Faber Photography
Bob Gunn, now associate conductor for the Orange County Gay Men's Chorus, Men Alive
The Mariners campus
Keith May
The Mariners campus

But despite his prominent role, few in the Mariners community were aware of Gunn’s sexual orientation—no more than five. Gunn knew that his church’s theology considered homosexuality a sin, one so grave that committing it automatically disqualified anyone from a church leadership role. So he kept quiet and prayed Beshore and the Board of Elders never found out.

Liefeld, the church’s director of women’s ministries, changed that. On Oct. 12, 2001, she contacted a Mariners church elder with the information that Gunn was a homosexual. The board member spoke with Beshore, who confronted Gunn with the allegation; he confessed.

The following Tuesday, Beshore and elder Jim Russell met with Gunn at the home of another church elder. The church’s board had decided to fire their worship director for violating church tenets against homosexuality, and they were going to share the news with church staff and congregation. Gunn didn’t object. Beshore offered Gunn therapy to “cure” his homosexuality, but he refused it. He instead composed a written statement to the choir, explaining why he was leaving them.

For his part, Beshore went before the pulpit for four sermons the following weekend and told the faithful why Gunn no longer deserved to stand before them. What was said before thousands that weekend provoked six years of litigation between Gunn and his former church, a litany of legal documents that might not end until it reaches the Supreme Court, who may decide once and for all: Can a church tell its members it fired someone for being gay?

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During the past 30 years, Beshore has transformed Mariners Church from a declining congregation into one of the most important in the United States, one so vital that a 1996 Atlantic article deemed it “The Next Church” in its examination of modern-day American Christianity. And that piece was years before Mariners acquired the land needed to create its current 50-acre campus, a stunning expanse off Highway 73 that sits at the base of Newport Coast Drive. Here, you’ll find modern worship buildings, a children’s center (complete with a smiling, life-sized, walk-through rendition of Jonah’s whale), a café, bookstore, parking garage, and lawn large enough to house a high school; a youth center, new chapel and lake remain in the works. This year, Outreach Magazine deemed Mariners the 58th-largest church in the United States, with a congregation of about 9,000.

But size and luxury alone don’t indicate Mariners’ reach. Like that of Chuck Smith of the Calvary Chapel movement, Beshore’s gospel has spawned other important county churches such as Rock Harbor in Costa Mesa and Irvine’s New Song. Beshore doesn’t have the media visibility of Rick Warren, the campy infamy of Paul and Jan Crouch or Robert Schuller, or Smith’s fire-and-brimstone power—he just spreads the Word. “Mariners provides a very safe, non-threatening, easy access to the Christian life,” says William Lobdell, formerly an award-winning religion reporter for the Los Angeles Times who has followed Mariners for years. “It has become the Dallas Cowboys of churches in that it’s something people want to belong to. Going there feels more like attending a small college than a service.”

Mariners has also stood apart from its megachurch peers by staying out of controversies—until Beshore went before his flock after letting Gunn go.

According to court documents filed in Orange County Superior Court, Beshore told listeners that Gunn “admitted to moral and sexual actions that are a sin,” “disqualified himself from leadership through a breakdown in character,” “had been caught in a sin” and “was a broken man who needed to be restored.”

Beshore thought it was “sad news” that Gunn decided to live outside the bounds of their biblical prescription, but he did not wish ill to his colleague. Instead, Beshore reminded the Mariners flock of Galatians 6:1-2: “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such a one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Read the text of Beshore's sermon here.)

A little bit more than a year later, Gunn responded with a lawsuit against Beshore, Mariners and its eight-member Board of Elders alleging defamation and intrusion of privacy for Beshore’s words.

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