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“As a matter of law, the fact that the words Mariners used may also have an innocent religious meaning cannot vitiate their defamatory secular meaning, any more than an innocent secular meaning can have that effect,” he continued. The decision turned the ministerial exception from “a shield raised to keep a church from having to defend the correctness of its beliefs into a sword that a church can wield to avoid liability for the kind of secular conduct . . . that the ministerial exception was crafted to keep out.”
A phone call to Beshore was returned by Mariners communications director Shelly Juskiewicz. After informing the Weekly that Beshore doesn’t return calls, she described the Gunn matter as “open litigation, and per our attorneys, we’re not able to comment.”
One person intimately familiar with the case who would comment was Lobdell. February will see the release of his new book, Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America—and Found Unexpected Peace. In it, Lobdell writes about how he found God at Mariners in the late 1980s, a time long before Beshore found large-scale success. Lobdell left Mariners in the late 1990s but distinctly remembers Gunn. “He was an incredibly gifted musician and charismatic worship leader,” Lobdell says. “Bob had movie-star good looks, a guy who had the audience at the palm of his hands.”
Gunn was rising in stock at Mariners with Beshore’s blessing even then, Lobdell says. “Together, they were a super team that was better than their parts. As the years went on, Bob took more and more of a central role at Mariners. He seemed more of a partner.”
Nevertheless, the reporter in him doesn’t think Gunn stands a chance with his lawsuit (he tried to get Gunn to talk to the Times last year, to no avail). “It’s incredibly difficult for the courts to get involved in internal church decisions without violating the First Amendment,” Lobdell says. “As unfair as it seems that a practicing homosexual can’t be in ministry, that’s [Mariners’] belief, and that’s what it says in the Bible for them. There are all kinds of charlatans who can get away with much worse things under the guise of religion, but the courts can’t touch them.
“I was really sad for Bob because I’m sure he expected a different reaction,” Lobdell adds. “He’s a good guy—he doesn’t really deserve this. I wonder how tortured Bob was being in the church with such teachings, knowing what was going on in his church. He loved Mariners, he loved Kenton, but he was who he was.”
Gunn declined to comment for this story—Toledano says the case is “profoundly painful” for his client. According to court documents, here’s what Gunn wrote to his choir seven years ago when he left:
I appreciate this opportunity to share my thoughts at this difficult time.
There are two things I am confident of: 1. That God accepts and loves me for who I am, that I am fearfully and wonderfully made, 2. That God brought me to Mariners Church.
I have great love for Mariners Church and believe that God has great things ahead for Mariners. I am honored to have been a part of that.
I also have great love for Kenton and the staff and people that I have had the privilege to serve within the worship community and I am sorry for the pain that this will cause. I am gay and was involved in a 5-year committed and loving relationship during my time here that ended some time ago.
I was trying to live my life with integrity according to my convictions. Never was it my intent to get away with something. At the time, I made what I thought was the best decision—choosing not to reveal the relationship. I knew that this was not a good decision. I am incredibly sorry for the hurt and pain that will result from this.
It is clear to me that there is a fundamental difference in theological perspective between me and Mariners, and therefore it is necessary to part ways and I understand the board’s decision to do so.
I encourage you to seek God, to grow in him, and to worship him with all that you are and all that you have.
* * *
Years after their parting of ways, Beshore and Gunn remain connected through music. The two found themselves a day apart, about 3 miles apart on the weekend of Dec. 6 at two separate events.
That Saturday, the Irvine Barclay Theater rang with the rich baritones, tenors and basses of Men Alive, the Orange County Gay Men’s Chorus. The group had rented the facility to stage a lighthearted musical depicting a reality-TV show about the chaos in the North Pole come Christmas. Men Alive’s production of Secret Santa! featured all the pleasures of their genre—“choralography,” cross-dressing, bawdy double-entendres, all to the delight of the capacity crowd. At the center of it all was Gunn, handsome in a suit, glasses and well-coiffed hair, unwinding tunes on a grand piano as he once did at Mariners. He’s a founding member of Men Alive and has served as the group’s assistant conductor since early 2002, just after he left Mariners. Beside him was Rich Cook, Men Alive’s artistic director who worked for Trinity Broadcasting Network, Melodyland Christian Center and Pat Robertson before an admission of homosexuality cast him out of the Christian-music world.