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.
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.
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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?
* * *
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.
“Each of the individual defendants has an unnatural antipathy to homosexuals and/or is known to be homophobic and/or is known to have expressed personal and emotional hostility to homosexuals,” read the complaint, written by attorney (and former Democratic Party of Orange County chairman) Jim Toledano. “Homophobia is not a part of the religious doctrine or theology of Mariners Church, and the reliance by defendants on purported teachings from Biblical texts is pretextual only and invoked solely to justify the personal homophobia of defendants and their actions against plaintiff.”
Gunn’s “vocation in church ministry was destroyed, and his ability to gain employment was and has been materially and negatively affected,” asserted Toledano, who described as “despicable” that the defendants “held him up [sic] public scorn, contempt and disparagement and injured him generally in his reputation and in his vocation as a religious minister.” Gunn asked for limited compensatory damages, attorney fees and punitive damages “in an amount appropriate to punish or to set an example of defendants.”
Mariners shot back in a surprising way. In a Dec. 20, 2002, demurrer filed by attorney Robert Toolen, Beshore and his board didn’t dispute any of Gunn’s assertions regarding his termination: “There is no allegation that the statements made were untruthful, especially in light of the fact that in a church setting, an admission of homosexuality could be interpreted as ‘moral and sexual actions that are a sin,’ ‘a breakdown in character,’ ‘caught in a sin’ and a ‘broken man who needed to be restored.’” Toolen argued Mariners’ actions fell under the First Amendment of the Constitution, which protects religious expression, and he expressed mock shock that Gunn thought he could file “garden-variety torts that just happen to involve him as a worship director and worship minister at Mariners.” Mariners also maintained that their actions against Gunn fell under what’s known as the ministerial exception, a subsection of Title VII in the 1964 Civil Rights Act that protects religious organizations from anti-discrimination lawsuits as long as they can prove that their actions against an employee were religiously based.
Toledano explained in a Feb. 4, 2003, response that the defamation happened when Gunn was no longer employed by Mariners and therefore Mariners was not protected by the First Amendment or the ministerial exception. “Once defendants had fired plaintiff, they had no legitimate need thereafter to attempt to shame him or label him or ruin him,” he wrote. The decision “to hold him up to scorn and disdain, to revile him, to defame him, and to make it sound to those who heard it as if he had committed despicable and possibly criminal acts was not connected to any religious process. . . . When defendant chose to go beyond their religious cover after they had fired plaintiff for being gay, they became liable.”
“In the real-world church setting, it does not take much imagination to assume that staff members and members of the congregation need to be informed about the termination of a long-standing minister within the church and the reasons thereof,” Toolen countered. “The very reasons for the termination, as articulated, are ecclesiastically based” and a “protected belief.”
Presiding Judge Steven Perk agreed with Mariners and threw out Gunn’s suit on Feb. 14, 2003, refusing to “medd[le] in [the] ecclesiastical authority of the church.”
Gunn pursued his case with the California Court of Appeals, Fourth District, Division Three, which tries Orange County cases. On May 31, 2005, a 2-1 majority agreed with Gunn’s appeal. Writing for the majority, Justice Kathleen O’Leary argued that “because we cannot determine from the face of the complaint whether [Beshore’s] statements [about Gunn’s termination] falls within, or is outside of, the ministerial exception, the judgment must be reversed.” The court did not find enough facts “demonstrating the acts were pursuant to any church doctrine . . . demonstrating that announcing members’ ‘sins’ to the congregation constitutes a religious practice in Mariners Church.”
Vigorously dissenting was presiding Justice David G. Sills—the title of his dissent is telling: “Today’s Decision Will Force the Adjudication of Theological Beliefs.” In his opinion, the court “should stay on their own side of the wall of separation of church and state” and not “wade waist-deep into matters of theology.” Sills also thought his colleagues had “seriously underread the complaint. They should spend a little more time with it.”
The senior justice continued the abrasive, entertaining read for 34 pages, using terms such as “Wildean irony” to ridicule Gunn’s assertion that telling his former congregation the reason for his leaving the church wasn’t necessary. “To paraphrase Gilbert and Sullivan’s famous line, he most certainly would be missed,” Sills quipped.
He also accused Gunn of setting a trap in which Gunn would emerge as the winner if a jury ever heard the case. “If the church and its elders contradict the complaint and aver that their religious beliefs and doctrine are ‘homophobic,’ plaintiff will publicly denounce his former ecclesiastical employers as a bunch of ignorant, Bible-thumping, knuckle-dragging, pitchfork-toting rednecks, masquerading as a tolerant church,” Sills wrote. “Or, if they take the bait and ‘admit’ that their doctrine is not ‘homophobic,’ the plaintiff will be able to rake them over the spiritual coals” in court, resulting in a “theological circus that will make the Scopes Monkey trial look like a boring treatise on insurance law. . . . Today’s decision, alas, turns the wall of separation into a one-way turn style [sic].”
“The majority’s exercise of judicial restraint is a source of great consternation for our dissenting colleague,” O’Leary tersely replied. “We chose not to exploit the facts of this case to create a bully pulpit. We regret our dissenting colleague’s attempt to strike fear in the hearts of all people of faith by exaggerating the significance of this case. Notwithstanding our dissenting colleague’s gratuitous, inflammatory rhetoric, the sky is not falling. The decision in this case does not in any way diminish the sacrosanct nature of ecclesiastical decisions.”
The Court of Appeals sent Gunn v. Mariners Church back to Orange County Superior Court, under a new judge, Sheila Fell. Gunn was now asking for six figures and added a new charge: emotional distress.
* * *
On Sept. 28, 2006, a statement of undisputed material facts was filed with Orange County Superior Court referring to depositions of Beshore and Gunn taken over that summer. The depositions themselves are not on file with the court, and neither Toledano nor Mariners’ current attorneys responded to the Weekly’s requests to review them. But the filed statement nevertheless provides surprising revelations about the drama that occurred during the depositions.
In the statement, Gunn was referred to as the “second-most-influential person in the church” while he was worship director at Mariners. While there, he agreed with the position that he “believed and understood that a homosexual relationship constituted inappropriate sexual activity in the eyes of the church.” He admitted to hearing Beshore “state that position in front of leadership at the church and in a message delivered to the congregation from the pulpit.” Gunn also didn’t dispute Beshore’s rule that “if a leader of the church was guilty of misconduct that he be confronted and that those being affected immediately by that particular leader be also told about the reason for disqualifying that person from a leadership position.”
During Gunn’s deposition, a stunning admission arose: Sometime between 1997 and 1999, Gunn himself had let go a staffer for admitting to a homosexual act. Gunn made the announcement to his choir of more than 100 members, telling them the offending person suffered a “moral failure.” Mariners’ lawyers also established that Beshore had previously explained from the pulpit why he had fired a heterosexual church leader—the man had marital problems of an unspecified nature that constituted a sin.
Toledano unsuccessfully argued that Gunn’s case was distinct from those of the heterosexual pastor and the gay staffer. Fell issued her judgment on Jan. 3, 2007—Gunn had no case, she said, writing that the evidence “clearly sets forth that the actions alleged by plaintiff in his complaint were in furtherance of the established church policy regarding termination of a leader within the church.” Gunn “had full knowledge of the church’s procedure of terminating leaders and had himself on a prior occasion of similar circumstance utilized the procedures in terminating a subordinate leader in the church.”
The attorney promptly went back to the Court of Appeals. This time, however, Tolendano found no relief. On Sept. 2 of this year, they unanimously ruled against Gunn. Since Gunn “conceded most of Mariner Church’s facts,” and since “there now is no material issue of fact concerning whether the statements made following Gunn’s termination were part of the process of termination,” Gunn’s lawsuit was moot. “Once it has been established the statements were made in relation to the process of Gunn’s termination, the ministerial exception applies regardless of the tortious nature of the statement. . . . Gunn’s failure to provide us with any cogent analysis of his argument waives his claim on appeal.”
Toledano isn’t done. In a petition for review that he filed in November with the California Supreme Court, he writes that the decision “finds a new and unwarranted religious exception to defamation law.” He wants the higher court to examine the ministerial exemption and argues it doesn’t apply to Gunn’s axing. “Neither the innocent religious meaning of Mariners’ words nor its intent to provide its congregation with a theological explanation for having terminated Gunn has any legal relevance in this tort action.”
“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.
Not all was camp and vamp, however. About halfway through the performance, the lights failed—on purpose. The head elf in charge urged the choir to sing, so that the blackout might leave. The 100-plus men of Men Alive launched into reverential renditions of “Silent Night” and “O Magnum Mysterium” that silenced the crowd quickly.
The giant wreath above the choir became illuminated anew. The elf urged more music. Gunn worked the piano. The symbolism was obvious—remember the reason for the season and let the Light enter the world. And yes, even gay men can praise the Lord.
The following day, Mariners held its own winter celebration: a tree-lighting ceremony. Thousands spread across the church’s lawn, enjoying a mini-fair complete with craft tables, food stands, photo booths and dozens of women hawking tchotchkes. A 45-foot Christmas tree loomed above the joyous crowd. It was a simulacrum of small-town Americana at its finest, and the only reminder for casual observers that this was a church was an 80-foot cross standing outside the worship center, lit like the moon.
If Beshore was around, no one mentioned him—instead, a young, charismatic man led a band and singers through a Christmas program as secular as what they allow at public schools nowadays. First up was Louis Armstrong’s salacious “Cool Yule,” with swing dancers jitterbugging onstage and in the crowd. More carols followed, interspersed with scenes on a big screen from holiday classics such as Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer, Elf and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Three of the dozen or so songs performed during what the young man kept calling a “service” mentioned the birth of Jesus.
Soon, thousands joined an interactive version of “The 12 Days of Christmas,” complete with college students dressed to represent the particular gift of a day: French hens, piping pipers, golden rings. Each section yelled out their particular day, the energy growing with each verse. Suddenly, the lights went out. This was unplanned.
“We don’t need no stinking light!” the service leader shouted, and the festivities continued for a couple of minutes in the darkness.
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