Reporting from Las Vegas - A male model wearing a kilt of black vinyl strips, a red belt with a gold buckle and little else is flexing his muscles amid fake oil derricks and Roman columns in a photo studio. All chiseled pectorals and tanned thighs, he is playing Captain Moroni, a battlefield hero in the Book of Mormon who rallied troops with the Title of Liberty banner.
Chad Hardy, who is running the photo shoot, adjusts the model's kilt. Captain Moroni lifts his chin, grips a sword and hoists the banner.
"Flex your abs," Hardy reminds him.
When the model crunches his stomach, Hardy shouts, "That's it!"
Hardy, 32, is the creator of "Men on a Mission," a calendar series that sends up the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with photographs of hunky former missionaries in poses, characters and settings familiar to the faithful.
Like adults of many religions, Hardy has questions about the faith he was raised in, but the entrepreneurial -- and very public -- way he questions it has made him a flashpoint for debate among Mormons.
Hardy's first calendar, which has a shirtless Mormon for each month, was applauded by liberal-minded churchgoers when it was released in 2007. But as time passed and the Mormon Church faced unflattering publicity over a raid on a polygamous breakaway sect in Texas and its support for a gay marriage ban in California, others complained that the calendar was damaging the image of the faith.
One of the kinder Internet posts about Hardy calls him "an attention whore who ... can contribute to bad LDS stereotypes and raise public disdain of church members."
Mormon officialdom has come down on him hard. He was excommunicated from the church, then barred from receiving his degree from Brigham Young University.
Hardy is fighting back with lawyers and his own website (slogan: "Open Shirts, Open Minds"). He plans to release the third "Men on a Mission" calendar online this month, much earlier than usual, to help pay his legal bills
A calendar of Mormon mothers styled as sexy (though clothed) pinups is set for release this summer, and although Hardy expects what he calls "Mormon muffins" to outsell the men, he considers the original calendar "my gift to the world."
"It was the perfect secret weapon," he says as a makeup artist dusts the male models' flab-free abs. "It's friendly. It doesn't tear down the beliefs of the church at all. Underneath, it makes people realize, 'Oh, they're sexy Mormons. They're real.'"
Hardy grew up in Palm Springs, which had a small Mormon community. He went to church weekly and told his younger sister, Cherylyn, that he prayed every night for her to make good decisions. But "you're constantly wrapped in guilt," he says, recalling how, when he was a teenager, a church official asked whether he indulged in impure thoughts.
While studying at Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho) and BYU's main campus in Provo, Utah, he felt out of place. "They were all trying to out-righteous each other. It's who can follow the rules the best," he says. He fell into a deep depression. "Those rules, I think, kept me from God."
He left school four credits shy of a communications degree and worked in various cities in event planning and public relations. In 2006, after moving to Nevada, he founded AdVenture Vegas, a company that leads corporate team-building exercises.
The inspiration for "Men on a Mission" was a TV report about a calendar called "America's Heroes," featuring Marines. Hardy told a friend he was thinking about making one that showcased Mormons, and her husband offered to help.
"I felt it would shake people up a little bit," says Fred Brodsky, who runs a prop rental company, "and when you shake people up, that can translate into sales."
Hardy scoured MySpace for potential models. He sent female friends to Mormon dances to look for prospects. They discovered Mr. June 2008. He met up with Hardy in a parking lot near a Mormon temple in Redlands, Calif., and shed his shirt for test photos. On film, Hardy says, the shy model came across as studly.
The 2008 calendar's photo backdrops suggested where the men had served as missionaries. Mr. May, who served in Las Vegas, is framed by the Strip, but a smaller photo shows him in his missionary attire: starched button-down shirt, tie, slicked hair, schoolboy smile. "You know why people love this calendar?" Hardy says. "You go from dorky church boy to hunk."
After the first "Men on a Mission," Hardy got more than 100 applications from Mormons eager to appear in the next calendar, many from men who understood its intended message.
"I don't believe in perpetuating myths or stereotypes," one wrote. "I believe in breaking them, overcoming them and yes -- even parodying them. That's what is so great about this calendar! It parodies that square, asexual box of what a 'Mormon' is supposed to be."
Hardy was emboldened. The 2009 calendar cover resembles a painting of the second coming of Christ. The shirtless model wears a rose-colored sash and white loincloth and is outlined in a celestial glow. Inside, Mr. September stands in front of a chalkboard with a diagram of the Mormon Plan of Salvation. Amid arrows and squiggles, the word "judgment" is clearly visible.
Hardy expected scathing reaction to the calendars from offended Mormons and some awkwardness with family and friends. It was the church itself that stunned him. He figured a calendar that sold about 10,000 copies wouldn't merit attention from a church with 13 million members. But he traded messages with a local church official who said Hardy should give "careful consideration" to stopping publication.
"Though we understand not everyone agrees with the project," Hardy replied, "the individual expressions of those involved have reshaped perceptions, removed walls, and shown ... . acceptance and tolerance around the world."
Last summer, he faced a two-hour church disciplinary hearing in Las Vegas. Hardy was excommunicated by a panel of church leaders. Mormon officials suggested it was for reasons other than the calendar, though Hardy said that was what the panel questioned him about.
The next day, with his excommunication making headlines, he got 163 orders for the $15 calendar, which is sold in mall kiosks and online. That month, sales totaled nearly $23,000, compared to $440 the month before.
"What can they do to me now?" Hardy recalls thinking. "I'm not afraid. Excommunication made me famous."
Hardy had recently completed online the credits he needed to graduate from BYU. He participated in the university's commencement, and a photo shows him in a navy cap and gown, beaming between his parents. But last fall, the university said it couldn't grant him the degree: His poor standing with the church had violated the school's honor code. On his website (www.chadhardy.com), Hardy posted the graduation picture -- with the word "DELETED" superimposed.
This year, Hardy met with a dean who said he would reconsider the decision. In an audio recording of the meeting, which Hardy posted on YouTube, he is asked whether he has avoided alcohol, coffee, drugs, pornography and sex outside marriage. Hardy said he shunned them all while a student, but wouldn't discuss his life after 2002, when he left BYU's campus.
BYU graduates must meet both academic and ecclesiastical standards, a university spokeswoman said, and in a letter to Hardy after the meeting, Dean Vernon Heperi said he had come up short.
"In my view," the dean wrote, "the material related to your calendars is offensive and disrespectful."
The returned missionaries are shown "in an inappropriate context" and the women in publicity shots for the "muffins" calendar are portrayed "contrary to the value of living a chaste and virtuous life." (Heperi did not return messages seeking comment. A Mormon Church spokesman declined to discuss Hardy or the calendar.)
Hardy says he is considering legal action against the university. Meanwhile, he has forged ahead with the 2010 calendar. None of his models has faced excommunication, he said. But this time, only a handful of men wanted to pose.
At the photo shoot, Hardy switches between directing models and doing telephone interviews. ("The church makes sex dirty," he is saying, "and we're making it beautiful.") He wears a graphic-print T-shirt, a camouflage hoodie and sneakers with the slogan "Born to Be Free." He is broad-shouldered, round-faced, blue-eyed and self-deprecating.
Several brawny models sprawl in the loft, chatting over blueberry bagels and carrots. Brandon Romain, a 23-year-old BYU student, heard about the calendar from friends in Virginia. While working for the College Republican National Committee in Ohio last fall, he e-mailed pictures to Hardy. For weeks, the dark-haired, blue-eyed Romain hit the gym twice a day.
"It takes a lot more preparation for the judgment to come," he says, anticipating criticism after the calendar is published. He has told only a few friends and his sister that he is posing. Hours before his flight to Las Vegas, he woke up wondering, "Man, should I really do this?"
Mr. September 2009 tries to reassure him. "This wouldn't be noticed without the controversy," says Ken Church, a 24-year-old former substitute teacher in Utah who was overwhelmed by the fan mail he received. "Our faces are all over the world."
Romain likes the idea of shattering stereotypes. "People think we have a bazillion wives and think we're a cult. They think we're all Peter Priesthood and Molly Mormon." Still, he didn't plan to tell his parents until after the shoot.
"Some people think it's porn," says Shawn Perucca, the 27-year-old posing as Captain Moroni, who lives in Los Angeles and was a missionary in Paraguay. But models in Abercrombie & Fitch ads bare more skin, he says with a shrug.
"I'm not going to lie, though," Romain says. "I kind of don't want to go back to Provo."