In October, Sutherland Institute President Paul Mero clapped gay attorney Stephen Clark on the back.
"This at times might sound like a little lovefest here," Mero said as the men discussed "Out of the Closet," a collection of their e-mails debating gay rights.
Four months later, Mero warned the crowd at his debate with Equality Utah members at the University of Utah Law School that he might be offensive, or, as he put it, "intentionally provocative."
And he was. He said gay and transgendered people come from a "very immature emotional frame of reference," pick from a menu of "umpteen" gender options, "play house," live an "illusion."
"The gloves must come off," he said.
The question is: Why?
Proposition 8, apparently.
Angry about the gay community's protests, boycotts and "extortion" of the LDS Church, Mero turned condescending and nasty, steaming with the emotion he so despises in the other side. Still, the next day, he sent an e-mail to his opponents inviting them to "continue to talk."
Mero insists his behavior is consistent. He's a self-styled compassionate conservative who thrives on heady debate with the other side. Certainly not a homophobe or a "gay-hater."
But you'll understand if gay-rights activists feel burned.
"The anti-church stuff after Prop 8 really set him off," says Sen. Scott McCoy, a Salt Lake City Democrat. "He is like a totally different person."
As the president of Utah's most powerful right-wing think tank, Mero wields unusual influence on Capitol Hill and throughout the state. He's the mastermind of Kanab's "natural family" manifesto and wrote an infamous op-ed in support of private school vouchers comparing "inflexible" public schools to slavery.
Still, he seems conflicted. Every so often he veers from the conventional conservative canon. He supports immigration -- illegal or otherwise. He believes polygamists should be allowed to "live and let live."
Marriage Law Foundation Director Bill Duncan says Mero is a traditional conservative, not a partisan.
"Paul's conservatism is more reflective, less talking-pointy." he says
Mero's theory turns on the question: Does it benefit society? As in: Gay sex doesn't benefit society, so there's no point in debating gay rights.
A little biography might be helpful here:
As a kid, his family trekked from Chicago to California to northern Virginia, following his father's jobs as his parents struggled to reconcile and finally divorced. He married at 18. Two years later, Mero converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He studied at BYU and then worked for two conservative California congressmen. Mero took the job at Sutherland eight years ago.
Mero's wife Sally home-schooled their six children. His mentally disabled sister lived with them for 20 years. There were no Boy Scouts, girls' camps or "Simpsons" in the household. "We wanted to raise good children," he says. But years later, they watch "Family Guy" together. He has five grandchildren. Through that prism, he sees Sutherland as the guardian of Amendment 3, Utah's constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Its author, former legislator LaVar Christensen, sits on the board.
The cause is not personal, Mero says.
"I run an organization that tries to affect public policy," he says. "I see this in public policy terms. They take it in very personal terms."
For gay rights advocates, it is personal. They say Mero is cloaking theology in pseudo-intellectual language. Equality Utah Public Policy Manager Will Carlson says Mero uses his encounters with them to grandstand. Sutherland taped that debate last month and Mero offered Equality Utah a copy he hasn't delivered yet. But while his opening comments are posted on YouTube, Equality Utah's are not.
Even Clark, Mero's gay "friend," is fed up with Sutherland's Sacred Ground Initiative. Mero criticizes Equality Utah for quoting LDS Church statements and then co-opts religion for his own cause, says Clark, former legal director of Utah's ACLU. "It's a "profound betrayal of the tenor, tone and spirit" of their e-mail exchange.
"At least Equality Utah has intellectual honesty," he says.
At that debate, where Mero acknowledged he was posturing, he said: "We really do live in separate realities. And in our separate realities, there is no common ground."
A moment of real honesty.