Writing about leaving a state you’ve resided in for 20 years, through my career’s apex and raising our children through their most formative years, is difficult. We loved Utah and then we did not. There are personal reasons – emotional, spiritual, mental, and even heartbreaking. There are professional reasons – intellectual, relevancy, efficacy, expectations, and even betrayals. These reasons and more finally persuaded me to leave behind dear family and friends. My wife too, grandmother to 17 of 20 grandchildren living close by, was done with Utah.
Many of the personal reasons have been discussed in my 2018 book, Unworthy: An Autobiography of the Imposter. But relatively untouched has been the professional reasons that played a role in my long-overdue divorce from Utah’s church and state. What forces could move a state conservative icon, orthodox Latter-day Saint, a man who for 14 years was the architect and overlord of the most influential politically conservative organization in the state, to leave his spiritual homeland and move to Las Vegas?
Simple. I grew out of step with the politics of both my church and my political party.
For years, at the helm of Sutherland Institute, I was the embodiment of church and state. From my office at the corner of South Temple and Main Streets, I had clear views of the Salt Lake Temple and Utah’s Capitol. When asked where our office was located, I’d often reply “at the corner of church and state.” From that perch, I defended the faith – and I defended the faith with the full backing of boards, staff, and donors. I had just as many meetings with LDS Public Affairs and directly with now-senior General Authorities as I did meet one-on-one with state legislators over 14 years. I just crossed the street.
My church never told me what to do. I just knew what needed to be done by meeting’s close. Frankly, I could say publicly what my church could not. I took the heat and the arrows and received quiet appreciation. Booze, gay rights, same-sex marriage, immigration, public defenses of church leadership, I was all in when I felt I was being asked to be all in.
To say I grew out of step with my church, as I mentioned, is not accurate. My church changed and flipped and flopped, mostly over aspects of gay rights. The funny thing about being out on a political limb, the moment is static not fluid. Sitting out on that limb is much easier than crawling back or escaping unscathed when you hear someone yell, “Timber!” Worse still is being out on a political limb watching as my church sawed the limb from behind me. Charlie Brown meet Lucy holding a football.
It is seven years later now since I was fired from Sutherland Institute. What if I told you my own church had me fired?
Now, you should know that this claim is my own theory. I do not have proof and I suspect I never will. But I do have enough evidence to lead me to that conclusion – and this is what I will choose to believe until I can’t. Also, you should know that this conclusion is NOT the reason I left Utah. I did not draw this conclusion until a few days ago [late October 2021]. But I am quite sure the up-to-now unrecognized evidence became a big part of my decision to leave Utah – the mysterious, immovable, emotional weight of too many unanswered questions about being fired.
Though I have moved on emotionally about the whole thing – I have forgiven everyone involved – complete closure never was achieved. Kind of a situation where I can forgive but not forget precisely because of unanswered questions. Well, one question, why? Why was I fired? At the time, I claimed publicly “irreconcilable differences” only because I had no other answer and, frankly, the media could not challenge that claim even if they suspected other motives.
Honestly, I have been puzzled about why I was fired for seven years – until now.
People who know me well know I am no conspiracy theorist nor prone to political extremism of any sort. Intellectually conservative, yes. Even right-wing as a younger man, yes. But no ideologue. No extremist. Not prone to conspiracies – not even when they appear to be true.
Years before I famously took on the “crazies” inside the Utah GOP over immigration, I had authored a pointed speech delivered and published under the auspice of Sutherland Institute about the real dangers of political extremism in Utah. Also, my departure from the UT GOP when Donald Trump was elected in 2016 is well-documented as well as when the UT GOP, once adamantly opposed to Trump pre-election, by 2017, had shamefully and quickly embraced him. I am politically unaffiliated to this day.
Perhaps I am imagining my surprising conclusion. Perhaps I am too eager for complete closure. Perhaps answers to unsettling questions about why I was fired have become too protracted. Perhaps too much time has gone by. Perhaps I need it to be true. And I am okay with those shortcomings, if true because what I can describe now is the closest I can come to explain what has been for me up to now the unexplainable.
By sharing this theory and the narrative surrounding it, I am not trying to hurt anyone. Rarely, if at all, will I use a name in this narrative. If I am correct about my conclusion, only the dearest of friends would be able to confirm it. If true, only the dearest of friends could have fired me – I mean friends nigh to family. At narrative’s end, I will try to share my feelings about the conclusion I have drawn.
Non-political people might not see what I see. Most people who care for me would tell me to forget it and move on. I understand. As I mentioned, I have moved on. But, come on, who doesn’t like a cool ending to a complete mystery, especially a “cold case”?
So, you tell me if the pieces of this puzzle fit enough to draw the conclusion I have – that my own church contacted my employers and “asked” them to fire me. The pieces of this puzzle are both contextual and circumstantial. In other words, a political backdrop set up the actions leading to my dismissal. The game “Clue” could be an apropos model here: LDS Public Affairs in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building (JSMB) with a phone call.
Here you go. Here are the pieces of my puzzle.
LDS Church opposition to same-sex marriage. My theory begins with the LDS Church’s effort to defeat same-sex marriage (SSM). The church’s political efforts against same-sex marriage, as did my interest, date back to the 1990s when the states of Hawaii, Vermont and California began to advocate for SSM. In 1997, in the office of a senior member of the Seventy’s Quorum, I was given a black three-ring notebook containing the strategies being employed by the church in those states. I was asked to review the strategies and get back to that member of the Seventy (which I did). In 2000, Proposition 22, an initiative approving marriage as between a man and a woman, passed in California with the support of the church. By 2004, the church supported Utah’s Amendment 3 stipulating that legal marriage was only between a man and a woman. Of course, the church was at the center of advocacy for Proposition 8 approved in November 2008.
To say that there has been a long history of LDS Church opposition to SSM would be an understatement.
Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. For as long as the LDS Church was visibly active in opposition to SSM, United States Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy was busy as well pumping out several majority opinions favoring gay rights and leaning into SSM.
In the Spring of 1996, Justice Kennedy penned the majority opinion overturning a constitutional amendment (Amendment 2) in Colorado (Romer v. Evans). At the center of his decision was the concept of “animus,” meaning Colorado did not just oppose gay rights, but that passage of Amendment 2 prohibited gay rights advocates from even putting such matters on the state ballot – literally disenfranchising them. Justice Kennedy and five of his colleagues concluded that Amendment 2 was just mean and spiteful – animus – toward gay people.
Animus in one iteration or another became a theme for Justice Kennedy in several other majority opinions he wrote favoring homosexuality (e.g., Lawrence v. Texas (2003) legalizing sodomy, Unites States v. Windsor (2013) striking down the federal DOMA law, and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) legalizing SSM). But perhaps his most telling majority opinion came in an abortion case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, wherein he defined liberty as “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” In other words, the net effect of such thinking is that if every person has the right to define “one’s own concept of existence,” disagreements alone comprise animus. (With one exception I can think of – the cake baker decision he authored – popular definitions of “one’s own concept of existence,” such as traditional faith and morality, always have been conveniently set aside by faithful Catholic Justice Kennedy.)
Let me double down on Kennedy’s thinking. If you disagree with the dogma that homosexuality is natural, normal, and healthy, you are expressing animus toward homosexuals. That is Justice Kennedy’s stare decisis in a nutshell.
Defending Amendment 3 in Utah. Both the LDS Church and the Utah Legislature sought to defend Amendment 3 in several lawsuits and eventually in a case wherein a United States District Judge, Robert Shelby, ruled just before Christmas 2013 that Amendment 3 violated both due process and equal protection in the 14th Amendment. The office of Utah’s Attorney General would appeal and appeal and appeal as the case made its way up the appellate court process.
About this same time, a new Attorney General was appointed to replace the prior two AG’s who stepped down due to allegations of abuse of office. The new AG sought a specific attorney to run appeals defending traditional marriage. The Utah Legislature was willing to appropriate approximately $200,000 to defend Amendment 3. The new AG’s preferred attorney would cost substantially more than that. So, the new AG called me and asked me if I could make up the difference between what the Legislature appropriated and what the preferred attorney asked for – another $300,000. I made one phone call and secured the money. But I insisted the money come with strings.
I insisted that Sutherland Institute have a central voice in developing the legal strategy through the appellate process and a crucial part of that strategy would be to argue a “full-throated defense,” or a complete narrative that regular citizens could follow, accept, and support even if we lost every appeal – an ending I had predicted at the time. We needed to win hearts and minds for the long run and keep “the faithful” passionately engaged. No lawyerly nuancing of only those clever ideas to win at any cost. Nope. We insisted that our case would cover the deepest of reasons why the institution of marriage is only between a man and a woman. We insisted we make a substantial, intellectual, complete argument in the defense of traditional marriage.
This strategy was in direct contrast to a strategy pushed by the LDS Church’s law firm. (It doesn’t really have only one law firm, of course. But just picture the relationship between client and counsel from the movie, The Firm, and you’ll get the picture and nature of its relationship with its primary outside counsel.)
They preferred what I would call clever tactics with no strategy. No doubt they would call it smart lawyering.
All they wanted to do was to prepare for Justice Kennedy to write the majority opinion. If those clever lawyers could ideally predict what Justice Kennedy might write, perhaps they could counter those ideas and eventually persuade him to change his mind. At least that was the thinking.
So, at an evening conclave in early January 2014 at the Sutherland Institute conference room, blinds fully drawn, a collection of lawyers and the new AG were on hand to debate how we proceed. Sutherland Institute was putting up the cash, not these “brilliant” lawyers. Yet we wanted to keep the peace as it were, so we entertained their ideas. The legal counsel sought after by the new AG was on the conference room phone.
Our guy was not their favorite guy. They wanted a lawyer-colleague who had direct associations with Justice Kennedy (as it happens, a lawyer-colleague who is currently a United States District Court Judge for the District of Utah). Their guy, sitting in the conference room with us, once clerked for Justice Kennedy. In their lawyer minds, they think that stuff matters. What also mattered for them would be to focus our entire defense on Justice Kennedy’s proclivity to cite animus in these cases.
Their way was to not rock the boat. Don’t give Justice Kennedy one thought about animus as a motivating factor of Amendment 3 or any opposition to SSM. In fact, to completely avoid the accusation, they proposed that Utah should embrace and reach out to its gay residents proactively and approve a series of laws in their favor culminating in a statewide nondiscrimination law – a clever ploy from otherwise solid practicing attorneys seeking to win. To me, the price for such cleverness was too high on several strategic and moral fronts.
The band of lawyers left the Sutherland conference room that night empty-handed. The new AG’s selection was selected. He would work part-time for Sutherland earning our contribution to his funding while defending Utah’s traditional marriage law.
A State Nondiscrimination Law. Any thorough strategic plan considers what is outside of team control, and I could not control what that band of LDS Church lawyers did on their own to get what they wanted in this case. What they wanted was a state nondiscrimination law, again, to demonstrate that Utah and the LDS Church do not have one iota of animus toward gay residents.
If you are not aware, the LDS Church Public Affairs Committee is a “diverse” ensemble of church leaders, outside influencers, and church lawyers. (I say “diverse” as in professions, not as in culturally progressive. As is their right and prerogative, the Committee remains a reflection of traditional church leadership – and, frankly, thank goodness.) The Committee is typically led by a member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles and a senior member of the Seventy’s Quorum – and very often with legal backgrounds. The outside influencers are typical of what political insiders might refer to as “the Establishment,” proven and trusted civic and business leaders of moderate political persuasions. None of the Committee members want or seek public fights – just the opposite. They think differences should be handled behind closed doors whenever possible. No need to sully their reputations.
But sometimes a fight is unavoidable, and in those cases, the Committee serves as a moderating influence wherever it can. California’s Proposition 8 is an example of exercising that moderating influence. Proposition 8, a state constitutional amendment proscribing that legal marriage is only between a man and a woman, became a very public fight and as expected, the Committee, through on-the-ground allies in California, managed to pull off an unexpected twist in the SSM narrative.
Voiced by the highest-ranking General Authority on the ground, they claimed that the church was actually in favor of gay rights, especially a statewide nondiscrimination law back in Utah. SSM? No. Gay rights? Yes.
They also cleverly raised alarm over the subsequent backlash the church received over Proposition 8 in terms of violent demonstrations outside sacred temple grounds and a multitude of lawsuits to plead for accommodation– almost as if the violence and retribution were the church’s fault. And it worked. The fence-sitters, especially back in Utah, with fight or flight issues, started to retreat philosophically and financially, their tender consciences requiring peace and popularity.
A quiet groundswell grew around accommodating a new statewide nondiscrimination law – the LDS Church Public Affairs Committee made sure of it. For six years running, I and a handful of courageous grassroots leaders defeated every attempt to pass a statewide nondiscrimination law in Utah. At the heart of the problem for me was placing the terms “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” into state law. Sexual orientation at that time had no less than 56 meanings and the term gender identity implicitly covered any situation that the 56 other meanings did not. The entire concept was a recipe for future cultural disaster and not just the eventual meaninglessness of societal norms but also taking such radical cultural change to its logical conclusions (e.g., the emergence of nearly fascist-level political correctness and “cancel culture”).
There was no way in hell I would let that happen in Utah. And, as it turned out, in the 2014 legislative session, we beat it for a seventh straight year (no pun intended). I made stopping the bill my highest priority and, evidently, my dogged and successful efforts were noticed and put under the microscope of the Committee and attention begat attention.
October 8, 2013, and January 14, 2014. Of course, I was going to lead the effort to kill a statewide nondiscrimination law. And if you would not take my word for it, the victory already was set by the beginning of the 2014 legislative session.
In the summer of 2013, Equality Utah was running billboard ads up and down I-15 claiming that 70 percent of Utahns supported a nondiscrimination law. Every day I drove to work I would see those ads and that got me to wonder, is that true? To find out if it was true, I commissioned our own survey research to prove it. By August 2013, I had my answer. Yes, it was true. But so too was another interesting finding.
Among the dozens of pages of research, the team discovered a very rare statistical anomaly. True, 70 percent (maybe more) of Utahns supported gay rights. But when forced to choose between religious freedom and gay rights the results could not be more different. When forced to choose, opposition to gay rights moved 45 statistical points. In other words, when forced to choose between religious freedom and gay rights, Utahns overwhelmingly supported religious freedom. In my mind, I heard the gay community and the LDS Church Public Affairs Committee breathe a collective uncomfortably quiet “ruh-roh.”
That 45-point swing, unprecedented in campaign politics as far as we knew, became the basis of an aggressive campaign to stop a statewide nondiscrimination bill. Furthermore, we easily could prove that states that once supported a statewide nondiscrimination law typically slid right into support for SSM.
The stage was set on October 8, 2013, during a private dinner at the JSMB. LDS Church leaders and LDS influencers joined many Sutherland Institute donors and potential donors and state legislators to listen as my survey research team presented the 45-point swing finding, a master crafter in messaging explained the winning message, and I closed the evening describing both the threat of and solution to a statewide nondiscrimination law.
The crowd was stunned, grateful, and opened up their wallets. We raised a lot of money that night for a new campaign. During the question-and-answer portion of the evening, a raised hand asked, “Is there any room for compromise?” Unhesitatingly, I boldly said no. That question came from a friend but also a member of the LDS Church Public Affairs Committee. He politely pushed back as if a compromise were possible. But I reiterated the whole point of the evening. If you oppose SSM, you have to choose a side. You cannot be of two minds.
A very senior member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in attendance seemed exhilarated and stayed after for another 45 minutes on top of a long two-hour meeting. He hugged me and said that was the best educational presentation he had ever witnessed and confided his support. A couple of weeks later, when I had asked, another senior apostle handed me a check for $25,000 he received through a third-party donor.
But I was not done. A week before the 2014 legislative session was a great time to double down on our plan. In “the barn” at Thanksgiving Point on January 14, 2014, Sutherland Institute hosted approximately 700 invitation-only guests to hear how we were not only going to defeat a statewide nondiscrimination law once again but also would support three new religious freedom bills during the session. I spoke as did the author of the three bills. The author, an admired and highly esteemed state senator spoke about religious freedom. My remarks were just punctuation. The energy that evening in that venue was both solemn and electric. I knew we would not lose.
LDS Church Public Affairs Committee. The three religious freedom bills were being drafted. The statewide nondiscrimination bill was introduced but dead-on-arrival. It finally made it out of the Senate as a courtesy to a retiring senator, but the bill was killed by the House of Representatives. That was the deal cut prior to the session. Only the three religious freedom bills were left on the plate.
Knowing that the statewide nondiscrimination law was defeated for the seventh year in a row, the LDS Church Public Affairs Committee, through its two primary church lobbyists (I called them the “home teachers”), asked the state senator to not run the three religious freedom bills. Certainly, the church lawyers viewed the three bills as prime examples of the animus they were trying to avoid related to SSM. But the two church lobbyists also explained that the church was under pressure over related issues and the three bills were not good optics for the church at the time. He acquiesced. But in doing so he reminded them that he had no control over how Sutherland Institute (i.e., I) might choose to react. His comment placed me in a predicament. Do I follow suit and acquiesce to the request to stand down? There was nothing I could do about the three bills. The state senator owned those bills – hard to advocate for nonexistent legislation.
So, I privately but loudly complained and made sure the “home teachers” knew I was disapproving and disappointed with their lack of discernment and cowardice. Maintaining that posture was important at the time even if it marked me as a firebrand and, more importantly as it turned out later, an unreliable force in the eyes of the LDS Church Public Affairs Committee.
(Note: A few years earlier during the push for nondiscrimination ordinances in Salt Lake City, I was unaware that my church was behind their passage. Secretive bunch when they want to be. I responded with a press release saying as public relations for the church, I can understand, but as public policy the ordinances were dangerous. That led a member of the Seventy on the Public Affairs Committee (and now an apostle) to get red-faced and loudly proclaim to me (more like yelling) that the church did not support those ordinances for the sake of public relations. As I sat back in my chair, I am sure my facial expression revealed incredulity. The senior apostle in the room just smiled and winked at me.)
The Worm Turns. The 2014 legislative session ended with the defeat of the state nondiscrimination law, the unexpected withdrawal of the three religious freedom bills, and Sutherland Institute’s “Fair to All” campaign announced on October 8, 2013, still clicking on all cylinders.
A few days after the April LDS General Conference, at a private event, a senior member of the Quorum of the Seventy and member of the Public Affairs Committee, approached the same state senator associated with my efforts and author of the three religious freedom bills. The state senator had met him only once before. The Seventy’s lone question of the state senator had to do with me. Paraphrasing from the recollection of the state senator, the Seventy queried, “Please tell me about Paul Mero?”
Again paraphrasing, the state senator replied, “He is a friend. He is a faithful Latter-day Saint. He is a defender of the faith and a defender of the Brethren. He is a streetfighter. If you want to ‘take a hill,’ he is the guy you would want to do it.” The Seventy replied, “Thank you. That’s all I need to know.”
A week after that moment, the state senator and I were in the audience at Utah Valley University (UVU) listening to a very senior apostle, on assignment from the church’s First Presidency, announced that the contention over gay rights required the church to now “accommodate” those rights. This was the same senior apostle who attended the event on October 8, 2013, praising our plan to do anything but accommodate gay rights. Needless to say, the state senator and I were utterly confused. Not confused were the dozen or so handful of members of the church’s Public Affairs Committee in attendance. They were all smiles.
(Note: Worth mentioning here for context is that, at the time, the LDS Church Public Affairs Committee was under the authority of the First Presidency, not the then-more conservative Quorum of the Twelve Apostles – meaning that Public Affairs had more sway over public policy then and could persuade members of the First Presidency to assign speakers and topics, such as the one at UVU. That dynamic has since changed.)
Getting Fired. Four months later, on August 15, 2014, I was fired. As I wrote in my book, Unworthy, the event was entirely unceremonial. Reflecting back on it now, the event was too unceremonial. The process of firing me as president of Sutherland Institute was odd at the very least. Unprecedented might be too strong of a word but I never have seen anyone get fired as I did.
That process has held nearly all of my unanswered questions for seven years. All I had for understanding was the person who fired me. No “why” unless the lone answer “you know why” is any kind of answer. Given the timing of it, I assumed that pettiness stoked by two disgruntled employees was at the heart of it. Two days before I was fired I had fired the favorite employee of the person who fired me. In fact, shortly after my firing, the employee I had fired was hired as his new personal assistant. Pettiness on his part has been my only answer for years.
Pettiness is a reasonable answer, right? I was an “at-will” employee who could be let go for any reason really. My decade on Capitol Hill in Congress was proof to me that people could get fired for lesser reasons.
Absent that sort of answer, typically employees are fired for primary reasons having to do with character, competency, or cost. Were those factors an issue? Was my character in play? As you might figure rumors were afloat nearly instantaneously of the news of my release. My wife heard from an acquaintance that I had embezzled money. One of my closest friends heard that I behaved immorally to the dishonor of my employer. When I complained in an email to Sutherland’s board of directors, they quickly assured me that not only were they not the source of such gossip but that issues about my character had nothing to do with my firing.
Was I let go because of a lack of competency? That reason would be the silliest of all reasons. I had built Sutherland from nothing to something in my 14 years there. I had safely navigated several internal and external potential problems. Verbal and written thanks and compliments from the founders, board members, and outside influencers were a common occurrence. And, at that time, the Institute was riding higher than ever. There was a lot of important work on our plates, and we were successful.
By May or June of 2014, I had sensed enough disgruntlement from the two employees and how the board chairman provided them access to complain directly to him (yes, I did discuss with him how unprofessional he was behaving) that I hired outside experts to come in and analyze the team. Was I wrong about or at fault for the dysfunctions? After a couple of days of team “retreat,” the consultants counseled me to take three actions: fire disgruntled employee #1, fire disgruntled employee #2, and find a way to remove the chairman of the board of directors.
My only obvious lack of competency was that I did not heed their counsel until it was much too late.
Was I let go because of budgetary concerns? The founders of Sutherland Institute always have been the largest donor by far. In my 14 years, the founders increased their annual giving to Sutherland tenfold. So, we measured financial growth in terms of non-founder dollars and non-founder dollars never had been higher than that fiscal year.
I was underpaid, in my opinion. My successor, hired over a year after I was fired, was paid double what I was paid. No, the budget was not an issue.
There existed no standard clues as to why I was fired. However, the process and resulting personal behaviors and reactions from the founders and board members did offer a few clues.
The Final Pieces of the Puzzle. Keep in mind as I share these last pieces of evidence to draw my conclusion that I worked for Sutherland Institute for 14 years and nearly to the person I had known the individuals involved in the decision to fire me for all those years.
First, there was no board meeting to discuss firing me. Quarterly board meetings were a regular thing. Each board member, independent of one another, was contacted by the board chairman and told of his decision. A month previous to my firing, I had asked the board chairman if we ought to have a board meeting and pose a “vote of confidence” in my leadership. The answer was “no, I don’t think that’s necessary.”
Second, there was no family-foundation board meeting to discuss firing me. I served on the boards of two of the founders’ family foundations for a decade up to that point. Without the founders’ contributions, there would be no Sutherland Institute. In many respects, they were family to me. Not a peep. In fact, several of the family members were not aware of the decision.
Third, no explanations were offered as I met after the fact with a few key people involved. About two weeks after I was fired I met with a board member who was with the board chairman as I was fired the morning of August 15, 2014. He was and is a friend. I invited him to join the board. In response to my question – why? – he simply said that after hearing the board chairman’s reason he knew there was no way to fix it and no reason to go through the motions to address it with the board.
I met with the founder’s wife almost six months later. She was emotional from the beginning to the end of the one-hour and a half meeting. We were close and she remains my friend. In response to my question – why? – she had no answer except to say that the decision was the business of the Sutherland Institute board. Huh? She was de facto chairman of the board. Surely she would have insisted on a board meeting, whether Sutherland’s or her family foundation’s, to discuss the decision. But no. I love her. She is a beautiful person. And yet nothing from her about the firing.
Another board member and friend who I also invited to join the board, in tears, told me she knew nothing about the motives behind the decision and then regretted not speaking up in objection.
Another board member and member of the board’s executive committee has not communicated with me about the decision or since the decision. He and I were the only two non-family board members on the founder’s family foundation. We were close. Our admiration for each other was mutual. With our wives, we double-dated now and then. Complete radio silence for seven years now.
What possible reason to fire me could be so secret that none of these good people would give me an answer? Why the deep emotions and still no answer? Why the extreme of zero contact? What if I am right about my conclusion – my church asked them to fire me? If I am right, I can only imagine the depths of emotion they felt to “follow the Brethren” and betray a dear friend.
Fourth, about ten days went by between when I was fired and when it was announced publicly. If you’ve read my book, you know that I wrote the press release of my own firing. The Sutherland team did not know what to say and the board chairman did not explain it to them. I referred to the cause as “irreconcilable differences” and that vague response seemed apropos at the time.
During that interim, I wrote of my dismissal to a senior apostle of my church who I had known for 20+ years. He needed to know, and he needed to know from me that it had nothing to do with issues pertaining to my faithfulness or worthiness as a member of the church (excepting one person, Sutherland was comprised entirely of Latter-day Saints). He replied promptly by letter. His reply was three sentences. The first sentence was thanking me for giving him a head’s up. The third sentence wished me well. It is the second sentence that baffled me at the time but now makes some sense, “Viewed from my perspective, I know of no reason why that was done, and I’ve heard nothing about it except your letter.”
Of all of the things he could have shared with me, why that? I assumed he had no reason to know why I was fired. That is why I wrote to him. That sentence is an odd matter to share with someone you have known for 20+ years. I expected to hear him tell me how sorry he was and the difference for good I had been and to thank me for defending the faith and the Brethren. Things like that. Instead, I get one sentence that sounds a lot like plausible deniability – almost as if he told the Public Affairs Committee to not apprise him of how they handled their concerns about me.
And fifth, approximately four hours after I was fired that morning, almost to the minute, the board chairman called me and asked me if I wanted to continue to oversee the World Congress of Families (WCF) event planned for October 2015. I originated and drove the project up to the point of my firing. The Sutherland annual budget then was about $2 million. The WCF event alone would run around $3 million.
Before I told him no but thank you with no little amount of incredulity in my voice, I asked him why he felt I was not competent to run Sutherland Institute but more than competent to pull off a highly provocative, sure to be controversial, and expensive event? He had no reply except to say that he thought I would like to make some money beyond my severance package.
Conclusion. Am I justified to think that my church had me fired? Could it be that I was the one thing standing in the way of the LDS Church Public Affairs Committee’s effort at accommodating gay rights in Utah and the church lawyers’ anti-animus game plan for the eventual SSM case before the United States Supreme Court? I now think so. I believe my church had me fired.
Consider the aftermath.
1. The statewide nondiscrimination law had finally passed in the 2015 legislative session, just months after I was fired.
(Note: Its passage, now referred to famously as the “Utah Compromise,” serves as the impetus for a church political campaign and an embarrassingly naïve congressional bill entitled “Fairness for All” that, just as the “Utah Compromise” did, legalizes discrimination against gays. [Curious note: my anti-nondiscrimination campaign for Sutherland was called “Fair to All.”] By the way, the “Utah Compromise” has not been replicated in any other state as hoped by its advocates. And of course, it will not be replicated in any other state or by Congress in the name of “Fairness for All” because it legalizes discrimination against gays. National LBGTQ leaders would not allow that to happen. Unbelievably, Utah gays, most of whom I’m guessing are former Latter-day Saints, pathetically and emotionally traded a public hug from the church for legalizing the church to discriminate against them in the name of religious freedom.)
2. The original Sutherland-endorsed legal counsel on the SSM case was replaced with a new head of counsel, some lawyer from Michigan where one of the cases the Court was considering originated. The church’s law firm submitted an amicus brief in the Obergefell SSM case that cited animus dozens of times in its 50+ pages. (An astute blogger reviewing all of the amicus briefs filed in Obergefell pointed to the church’s law firm’s amicus with a heading of “Wait, I thought you disliked discrimination.”) Obviously, arguing a lack of animus was ineffectual. SSM was found constitutional by the Court in June 2015.
3. Speaking of amicus briefs, the Utah Legislature/Sutherland paid-for defense of marriage brief turned into a boring, not-full-throated argument. The AG’s guy ended up authoring a brief for “100 Scholars of Marriage in Support of Respondents” – evidence as to how traditional marriage benefits people – an argument Justice Kennedy gladly welcomed and eagerly twisted into a primary reason to extend marriage to everyone.
4. And perhaps staying true to its cue from the LDS Public Affairs Committee to fire me, Sutherland Institute changed from lobbying advocates for freedom to simply avid preachers of it. As far as I can tell, outside of a public lands issue stemming from an internal center I created, the Center for Self-Government in the West, and a WCF event I created, the Institute has been neutered of public policy – with all due respect to a couple of my dearest friends still at the Institute.
Even an average lawyer might say at this point that everything I have pointed to is all circumstantial – and that lawyer would be right! My guess is that I will never know the truth of my theory. If the people involved have not uttered a word in seven years, my guess is they never will – except maybe to deny my current claim.
To anyone who might now be pointing at me as suffering from some form of megalomaniacal posturing, let me be very specific about what my firing could mean relative to all of these past events.
Let’s acknowledge upfront that there is nothing about keeping my job that would have changed any judicial conclusions from nondiscrimination cases to SSM. Obviously not. Only judges determine those cases regardless of what anyone argues before them. In fact, I predicted and confided to the new AG’s desired legal counsel that we would lose the SSM case which is why I insisted that our defense of marriage be, as he would say, a “full-throated defense” that would provide intellectual support for traditional marriage for the ages.
What I do know if had stayed on board with Sutherland is 1) a statewide nondiscrimination law would not have been enacted in Utah, 2) the church’s “Fairness for All” campaign never would have gotten off the ground, and 3) Sutherland Institute still would be a relevant force in Utah law and public policy.
When it came down to it, despite the good works of so many other courageous Utahns, I was the one person standing in the way of the LDS Church Public Affairs Committee’s decision to pass a statewide nondiscrimination law, their stupid “Fairness for All” campaign, and the church lawyer’s legal strategy focusing on animus instead of using their time actually defending traditional marriage.
Would I have eased up or changed courses if the Committee have asked me to? No. My dear state senator friend was right about that calculation. But would I have done so if a senior apostle would have asked me to? Yes, I would have. My faith is more important than my politics but my job – the reason I got paid – was to defend and advance freedom in Utah to the best of my abilities and a request like that, even from a senior apostle, would have challenged my conscience greatly. Ironically, I might have felt the need to resign from Sutherland at that point.
Had I stayed at Sutherland, no doubt I would have left soon after all of these projects were finished. I still suffered greatly from all of the issues I describe in my book, Unworthy. I would have cracked at some point. Just gave up.
I hold no animus against anyone I’ve mentioned in this narrative. I have forgiven all, and I have moved on. I can understand why my former friends and colleagues would withhold information as I theorize they did. They loved me and cared about me. I know it hurt most of them to do what was done. It’s the only reason I can conclude for them not telling me why I was fired and yet expressing such remorse of emotions. Only this theory makes sense of that inconsistency for me. Others might blame human weaknesses and shortcomings leading to personal betrayal. I do not.
My dear mother-in-law asked me candidly how this conclusion has affected my thoughts about my faith. A very logical question. As I pondered it, my mind’s eye went to every other person, great and small, who have been truly betrayed by friends and loved ones. Am I greater than them? No. If I look back in the history of my church, I see plenty of betrayals and how individuals responded to them. Some moved on. Some left the church. I understand.
I’m choosing to move on. I’ll keep my faith. I’m grateful for my life. I see my relationship with my God differently now as a result of the angst I went through after being fired. Getting fired hurt me. It was devastating for me, especially not knowing why. I’m glad I hung in there despite the emotional trauma I endured. I’m grateful for a great wife and family and so many friends who stood by me through it all. I know many of them will believe my theory. Some won’t. No matter. This understanding is for me.
I moved from Utah well before drawing this conclusion. But, as I mentioned at the top, I felt every thought drawing me to this conclusion for seven years. Every day in Utah was a reminder that my forgiveness, such as it was, was not complete. I couldn’t live with that. So, I moved. Now my forgiveness is complete.