File this one under supreme irony.

A former top official with the Christian Civic League of Maine, fired last summer by a new boss who believes we should all first and foremost respect one another, has taken his case to the Maine Human Rights Commission.

And he’s charging discrimination.

“I’m an unemployed clerical worker who was fired illegally,” said Mike Hein, the league’s former office manager, in an interview Friday. “And no one should be surprised that I’m standing up for myself.”

Hein calls his termination last summer by Carroll Conley Jr., the league’s new executive director, a violation of the Maine Whistleblower Protection Act after Hein ratted out the league for sidestepping the state’s worker compensation laws.

Conley, on the other hand, says he showed Hein the door because of “our obvious philosophical differences” over everything from Conley’s suspicion that Hein may harbor “anti-Semitic attitudes” to what Conley calls Hein’s “unhealthy attitude toward women.”

We’ll wish the Human Rights Commission luck in sorting all that out.

But this much is already clear: This is not, in any way, shape or form, the same Christian Civic League that has long delighted in transforming Maine into an ideological battleground.

Rather, as Conley noted last week, it’s a newly constituted organization determined to “return to some of our core principles of years gone by.”

Such as?

“We can respectfully disagree with somebody, but still recognize that they are created in the image of God and therefore they are due our respect,” Conley said. “Regardless of what their positions are.”

You heard that right, folks. The Christian Civic League of Maine, at long last, is calling for civility in the public square.

A little history:

When we last left the league (also known as the Maine Family Policy Council) back in September 2009, then-Executive Director Michael Heath had just resigned in a huff after seeing his stock plummet throughout Maine’s religious community, including the league’s traditionally conservative evangelical base.

In retrospect, it was inevitable. Years of rhetorical excess by the ever-homophobic Heath — from calling Portland “Sodom and Gomorrah,” to publicly soliciting rumors about legislators who might be gay, to claiming that a pro-equal-rights Gov. John Baldacci had “one of those imaginary gay genes” — had left the league with a decimated membership, a dwindling bank account and a two-person staff to hold down the fort after Heath moved on.

One of those people was Hein, the office manger. The other was Fritz Spencer, the far-right writer and editor of The Record, the league’s online newspaper, who worked as an independent contractor and actually lived upstairs at the league’s Augusta headquarters for a dollar a month because there wasn’t enough cash on hand to pay him a living wage.

Enter Conley, who grew up in Milo, now lives in Glenburn and is active in the Bangor Baptist Church. Beginning last winter, he and an “ad hoc committee” of like-minded Mainers began meeting to sift through the damage from the Heath era and see what, if anything, might be worth salvaging.

“We actually had to offer people anonymity” to attend the meetings, Conley recalled. “If it had anything to do with the Christian Civic League, they didn’t want anything to do with it.”

The name had become that toxic?

“I used the word ‘anathema,’” Conley said. “It really was.”

Last July, after repeated entreaties from the league’s board, of which he was by now a member, Conley agreed to take over as executive director.

From the start, Conley said, he knew it wasn’t going to work with Hein and Spencer — the last vestiges of the not-so-good old days. Specifically, he recalled, they had a problem with his belief that “there are higher priorities than our political agenda and our social agenda — and that is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

“When I came on board, I was told by my staff that I was making a horrible mistake by making the Gospel of Jesus Christ the number one priority, that I had no business making evangelism the priority of the league,” Conley said.

Nor, he made it clear to his new subordinates, was he interested in vilifying the opposition whenever things did get political.

“Who’s ever going to listen to anything anybody says if you’re not respectful and compassionate and care about them?” Conley asked. “There’s a simplicity there, the protection of being a person of integrity.”

Things went downhill from there.

Hein said he informed Conley a few days after Conley took over that Spencer, still classified as an independent contractor, should in fact be a regular employee. Conley said he told Hein he’d look into it.

A few days later, unknown to Conley, Hein headed over to the Maine Department of Labor and turned the league in for violating the state’s labor laws. At the same time, Hein informed Conley that he was seeking protection under Maine’s Whistleblower Act from retaliatory employment discrimination.

(Last month, the Maine Workers Compensation Board ruled that the league had in fact misclassified Spencer and fined it $100. Conley, who had nothing to do with the violation, nevertheless paid the fine.)

Finally, on Aug. 11, Conley fired Hein and Spencer.

In his termination letter to Hein (which Hein distributed to the media last week), Conley cited Hein’s refusal “to disavow any adherence on your part to anti-Semitic attitudes that I suspected you may embrace.” He also recalled that Hein, after a heated confrontation with one of the league’s newly installed female board members, had said, “No woman should ever speak to me in that manner.”

Hein says he has no idea where the “bizarre” anti-Semitic charge came from. As for the female board member, he conceded he made the remark because she was rude to him and “outside of my family, I’d never been talked to by a woman like that.”

But why the “woman” thing? What if she’d been a man?

“Then you probably would have gotten punched in the lip,” Hein replied.

Nice.

The league’s battle with its disgruntled ex-employee will, as these things do, take weeks, if not months, to resolve.

But the real news here isn’t about how gracefully (or not) the league, which still holds fast to its conservative views on everything from gay marriage to gambling to abortion, severed its last remaining ties to an era many Maine Christians would just as soon forget.

Rather, what’s truly noteworthy is that the new man at the league’s helm is, much to his credit, more interested in extending an outstretched hand than reflexively slapping his opponents upside the head.

Take, for example, a thoughtful comment Conley offered Friday on the eternally divisive issue of abortion.

“Conservatives will scream and scream and scream about abortion, which I agree is something we should all be concerned about,” he said. “But how many ministries are really doing something to help women define themselves in those circumstances? How many people are involved in the inconvenience of serving them and loving them and preventing the circumstances that lead to these incredibly difficult, trying decisions that women find themselves in?”

It’s hardly the kind of talk we’ve come to expect from the Christian Civic League of Maine.

And we can all thank heaven for that.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

[email protected]