The Christian Civic League of Maine, which has fought contentious battles over social issues including gay rights, casinos and same-sex marriage, may be mellowing as it matures.

“We are taking the League in a very different direction than it’s gone for five or six years,” said Carroll Conley of Glenburn, interim executive director of the League since July 19. “We’re trying to have compassionate respect for people with whom we don’t agree.”

But the Christian Civic League has some internal wounds to heal.

In September 2009, Michael Heath, who had been executive director and the voice of the League for decades, resigned. “I felt my years of leading the League were over,” Heath said. “I felt I had served the period God wanted me to be there and it was time to move on.”

Heath’s departure left Mike Hein, the League’s administrator, and Fritz Spencer, a writer-editor, to keep the League office on Sewall Street in Augusta operating.

Last winter, Hein, whose e-mail address includes the moniker “twofistedmanofgod,” led a successful campaign to get the Maine Human Rights Commission to back off enforcing guidelines that would have required schools to allow transgendered children to use bathrooms with children of the other sex.

On July 19, the League’s board of directors hired Conley as the new interim executive director.

On July 21, Hein tipped off the Maine Workers’ Compensation Board that Spencer had been employed for more than a year in what he said should have been considered a formal employee relationship. Spencer was not covered by Workers’ Comp, Hein said, so he was misclassified.

On Aug. 11, Both Conley and the Rev. Albert “Sandy” Williams II of Freeport, chairman of the League’s board of directors, called Hein into Conley’s office and fired him.

A couple of hours later, Spencer was given his walking papers.

Hein claims he was fired in retaliation for tipping off the Workers’ Compensation Abuse Investigation Unit about Spencer’s unorthodox employment arrangement. He said he is considering filing a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission. The Maine Whistleblower Protection Act protects employees who file complaints of illegal or unsafe conditions against their employers.

Both Williams and Conley deny that Hein was fired in retaliation for his tip to the state agency.

“He wasn’t fired in retaliation for anything, but that’s as much as I want to say; other than that I have no comment,” Williams said.

Conley said, “That’s not the reason,” when asked if Hein was fired in retaliation for his tip about Spencer’s employment arrangement.

Conley indicated the change in direction of the League’s philosophy might have more to do with Hein’s and Spencer’s firing than anything else.

“The League’s mission still hasn’t changed,” Conley said. “But we’re trying to avoid being identified just by what we oppose. The League had been identified in the last few years by its opposition to gay rights. Our positions have not changed regarding same-sex marriage and abortion, issues that are so divisive.”

“We feel it must be done from a platform of compassion and not from a combative position. There are those who feel it should be a full frontal assault,” he said, refusing to say if he thought Hein was one of those.

Conley said he thought it was a tragedy that a Rutgers University student committed suicide after being taped engaged in a sexual act with another male and then having the video broadcast on the Internet. “I prayed, ‘Lord, don’t ever let me contribute to the hate that drove them to do this,’” Conley said.

“Someone that I oppose is not my enemy. We do not agree, but whenever we engage, I have the obligation to honor God. There have been significant changes, but I have been doing this with the absolute enthusiasm and support of the board.”

Conley said, “We inherited a very difficult situation” with Hein and Spencer. On the Workers’ Compensation investigation, “Whatever the state says, we’ll do,” he said. “Whatever it is, it is.”

Hein was administrator, or office manager, of the League from 2006 to 2010. He said he and Heath were the only employees covered by Workers’ Compensation.

Spencer worked for the League in 2005 and 2006 and was treated like an official, full-time employee. He was rehired in early 2009, Hein said, with a “handshake” agreement and a paycheck of $800 a month. By August 2009, he was signing quarterly contracts, also paying him $800 a month.

For $1 a month, Spencer was allowed to live in two rooms at League headquarters.

Hein pointed out that the League treated Spencer as a vendor or contract employee despite the fact that he had his own office, computer, a dedicated phone line, regular work hours and reimbursable expenses. Hein said there were no deductions from Spencer’s paychecks for anything, including taxes.

“He was an employee, but we didn’t pay him as such. I knew we couldn’t just pay an employee without the state accusing us of harboring an employee,” Hein said.

“We couldn’t afford to pay the deductions. Mike [Heath] and I were the only ones on the payroll, and when Mike left, I was the only one on the payroll.”

Spencer’s job was to write articles for The Record, the weekly online newsletter of the League that Conley said has about 2,500 electronic subscribers. The League has a mailing list of about 5,000.

At the end of June 2010, Hein said the League received a bequest of about $102,000 from a supporter who died in 2008.

“I had known that what we were doing [with Spencer] was, at the very least, unethical,” Hein said. “This whole thing was uncomfortable for me from the beginning. At the end of July, I made the board aware that we had to do something about this issue.”

It was Hein’s position that with the money from the bequest the League could afford to pay Spencer’s payroll deductions, plus any financial penalties ordered by the state. He said he thought it was imperative to come clean with the state.

Hein said Conley told him “he would take it under advisement.”

“The League is a Christian ministry,” Hein said. “When we have the money to remedy the situation, we should do it.”

Jan McNitt, assistant to the general counsel of the Workers’ Compensation Board, said, “We did receive a tip regarding the Christian Civic League that we passed along to our Misclassification Task Force. Investigations are confidential until there’s some type of action taken.”

McNitt said employers pay for Workers’ Compensation. It protects an employer. Without it, an employee could sue for damages. Workers’ Compensation minimizes liability. It pays an employee who is injured on the job for lost time and medical treatment. The employee cannot be charged for the premium.

“They’re required to carry it for any employee who’s not a sole proprietor,” said McNitt. Workers are divided into employees, who must be covered by Workers’ Comp, and independent contractors, who are not covered by Workers’ Comp.

In an e-mail to the Weekly, Spencer described the circumstances of his firing.

“Approximately one or two hours after Mike Hein was fired, I was called into the office of the interim executive director, Carroll Conley,” wrote Spencer. “The first thing Conley stated was this: ‘You have told us you would resign if we let Mike Hein go. We are giving you the option of resigning or being terminated within two weeks.’”

“It turned out to be a moot point, since we all learned subsequently that my contract as a contract worker had expired some time earlier before the meeting,” Spencer wrote. “It is difficult to determine the real reason for my being let go, since the leadership was not candid with me. I did feel that Hein was being treated very unfairly, and I had expressed my opinion that I would leave if Hein were fired.”

Spencer wrote in the e-mail and in a published essay that he thought the Civic League was turning “towards the left” politically, and he thought Conley was a “bench warmer” for the eventual takeover of the League by well-known Baptist pastor the Rev. Bob Emrich of Plymouth.

Emrich is executive director of The Maine Jeremiah Project and was a leader of the successful Stand for Marriage campaign that repealed Maine’s same-sex marriage law in a referendum in 2009.

Emrich has taken a place on the board of the Christian Civic League; both Conley and Emrich deny that Emrich has designs on becoming the group’s executive director.

“He has categorically denied that he wants to be director,” said Conley. “Bob and I are close friends. I trust him implicitly. I don’t believe he has any desire at all to be the director. But if he did do it, I think he’d do a wonderful job.”

Emrich said, “I have not sought that position [executive director of the Christian Civic League]. I have no desire for that position. I think Carroll Conley is much better-suited for that position. I’m a pastor of a church, and that’s what I want to continue doing.”

Conley said the League has hired a part-time administrator and another person on a contract basis as a writer. He declined to identify either staff member.