Tag Thompson lost his brothers the day the letter arrived.
Months earlier, when the first letter had come, the men had gathered in an Irish pub downtown to discuss. To commiserate. To strategize.
But this letter, dated March 15, 2021, and addressed to "Brother Thompson," severed his relationships with those men.
"I don't think I can express how close we were. We went through divorces together. We went through deaths together. We went through, when my ex-wife had surgery one time, there was nobody in the waiting room except for like seven Freemasons that came to just sit with me. So, yeah," Thompson said, his voice cracking with emotion at this thought. "So, we were incredibly, incredibly close."
What began as a 42-word Facebook post in October 2020 resulted in Thompson's expulsion from Freemasonry five months later, stripping the ordained minister of a brotherhood he loved.
Thompson - a 41-year-old, straight father of three - was accused of "promoting homosexuality" under a Tennessee Masonic law that had caused an uproar six years earlier.
The Grand Lodge of Tennessee Free & Accepted Masons did not respond to requests for comment by email and phone this week from the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
BECOMING A FREEMASON
Thompson, the son of missionaries, spent most of his childhood in Central America before returning to the Chattanooga area to study at Tennessee Temple University and Bryan College. He was ordained in the Southern Baptist Convention, he said, and worked as a pastoral intern at Stuart Heights Baptist Church in 2004.
Doing mission work in South Africa as a young adult changed the way he felt about the place for the LGBTQ community in the Christian faith. He moved away from the baptists and more toward the non-denominational house church movement, in which parishioners gather to worship in private homes. He is now the lead minister for the Tapestry, a local non-creedal community that does not espouse a central set of beliefs.
In the mid-2010s, Thompson read "The Da Vinci Code" and was drawn in by the narrative related to the Freemasons. Long interested in symbology, he began researching.
Around the same time, a friend reached out to him about joining the Masons, he said. The two visited a local lodge and Thompson became a Freemason in early 2015, joining Chattanooga Lodge #199.
The group would meet weekly for meals out or gatherings at the lodge, Thompson said. They did charitable work together at local schools and food banks, as well as for the homeless.
The centuries-old, male-only fraternity is organized with individual lodges answering to the grand lodge in their state, which has its own set of bylaws and governing principles. There are more than 300 lodges in Tennessee with around 31,000 members, according to the Grand Lodge of Tennessee's website. Each region of lodges is governed by a grand master, who is elected by members.
Members earn degrees to join or climb the ranks of leadership within a lodge, with such degrees typically drawing moral lessons from the symbols of tools historically used by stonemasons. The secrecy surrounding the fraternity, such as the rites of initiation and symbols, have historically fed conspiracy theories about the group, despite most of the secrets having been made public in some capacity.
The organization and its members believe in a higher power but do not ascribe to a specific religion or denomination. Discussing religion or politics in a lodge is discouraged. The Grand Lodge of Tennessee's website states Masonry teaches religious liberty and does not take the place of attending church. The organization promotes charitable work in the community.
Around the time Thompson became a Mason, the Grand Lodge of Tennessee was roiled with controversy that spilled out into public view.
In 2015, the Grand Lodge of Tennessee suspended Dennis Clark and Mark Henderson, two Memphis Freemasons who were married after the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage. During a members-only meeting in March 2016, the grand lodge voted overwhelmingly to keep the organization's ban on gay members, according to The Tennessean.
The news caused a stir in Masonic lodges across the country, and in other parts of the world. The news drew rebuke from grand lodges in Maine, Washington D.C., California and Belgium. Many grand lodges do not have laws banning gay members, although Georgia's in 2015 prohibited homosexuality in its ranks. In 2010, Kentucky's grand lodge voted down a proposal to create such a rule.
After the Tennessee vote, Chris Hodapp, an Indiana Mason and a prominent writer on the brotherhood, wrote on his Freemasons for Dummies blog that many religions affirm homosexuality and that the prioritizing of one religion's tenets goes against the nature of Freemasonry.
The organization was designed to bring people together, Hodapp wrote.
"In your own Masonic career, you have undoubtedly made friends with men you otherwise would never have met, never socialized with, never sat in church with, never have given a second thought to," he wrote, in the March 25, 2016, post. "That is what makes this fraternity unlike any other. But I have heard from dozens of good Masons who have given much of their time and treasure to it, who are now leaving because we have failed to live up to the promises we made to them when they joined."
Thompson said he was not aware of the ban when he joined. He considered resigning after the vote, he said, but more progressive Masons encouraged him to stay, to lend his abilities to change the organization from the inside.
"[The vote] was really hard. But honestly being a part of that made me even more excited about the potential of actually changing it from within and doing that," he said. "I was pretty vocal about my disappointment with that decision. And I think that kind of got me a reputation with the Tennessee Masonic world."
Locally, Thompson's role was rising. He helped his lodge build a new building near Finley Stadium in 2017. By 2018, he was worshipful master of his lodge, a position akin to president.
THE FACEBOOK POST
LGBTQ rights were in the news spotlight in October 2020 as Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, in a decision not to hear a case, criticized the court's 2015 decision to allow same-sex marriage. Weeks later, the Senate voted to confirm Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the court, cementing a 6-3 conservative supermajority.
On Oct. 27, 2020, Thompson posted the 42-word message to Facebook: "I have LGBTQ+ friends who are worried about being able to marry in the future. If that is you, know that I am a licensed and ordained minister. No matter what happens I will be your officiant if you need me. #theycantmakethatcall."
This was not the first time Thompson had publicly supported the LGBTQ community, he said, and he did not think the post would cause any problems in the Masonic world.
Thirteen days later, Chattanooga Lodge #199 received a letter from David Bacon, a Mason from a lodge in Soddy-Daisy. The letter accused Thompson of being un-Masonic for "promoting homosexual activity" because of the post. Bacon suggested the lodge hold a trial.
The Masonic code cited in the letter and allegedly breached, read, "to promote or engage in homosexual activity. To cohabit immorally in a situation without the benefit of marriage."
Bacon declined to answer questions from the Times Free Press when reached by phone, instead referring all questions to the state grand lodge.
SUPPORT AT FIRST
The letter arrived the same day as Lodge #199's stated monthly meeting. Afterward, Thompson and a group of fellow Masons gathered at the Leapin' Leprechaun downtown to discuss how the lodge would handle it.
"After the charges dropped, I had nothing but full support of people in my lodge," Thompson said.
The group could handle the charges locally or ask the state lodge to hear the case, Thompson said. Thompson said he felt this was an opportunity to see whether the state lodge would stand by its decision from four years earlier.
A week later, on Nov. 16, 2020, Lodge #199 formally asked the Grand Lodge of Tennessee to hear the case.
Thompson's trial was a closed-door affair, like many aspects of Freemasonry. He appeared in a Dayton lodge on Feb. 27, 2021, before a three-man panel of other Tennessee Masons, according to records from the process.
Similar to a judicial trial, Thompson had a Masonic lawyer, and so did the plaintiff. The affair lasted around four hours, Thompson said, though he sensed the outcome early on.
"Honestly, the trial was over before it started," he said.
Thompson chose not to testify.
Steven C. Bullock, history professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts and author of "Revolutionary Brotherhood: Freemasonry and the Transformation of the American Social Order," said the Masons have a history of finding common ground between men of conlficting religions or those facing other divides, something that is hard to achieve when members - even from neighboring lodges - start policing each other's differences.
"The idea of bringing people together, of connecting and people being brothers, regardless of who they are, it's kind of, it's kind of a part of the American tradition too," Bullock said by phone. "The key foundations of Masonry are creating some sort of sense of brotherhood, of inclusiveness, of family between people who are otherwise distant from each other and different from each other. And that's been the long, long history of the fraternity, right from the beginning.
"Now you have this kind of just trying to circle the wagons, which is just a very difficult kind of thing," Bullock said. "Not very healthy."
Bullock said it's significant the grand lodge handled the matter because the traditional role of the grand lodge is "to keep peace within the community, and wanting to keep growing and expanding and bringing people in."
On March 15, 2021, Thompson received a letter from the state's grand secretary containing the verdict: "The defendant, Brother Thompson, was found guilty of the charges and we received the sentence of expulsion," the letter read. "... The member is not eligible for restoration."
"Every close friend that I had, every close male friend that I had in the world at that point was a Mason. I mean, it's who I hang out with. I mean, it's a brotherhood, so I was incredibly close to these people," Thompson said. "And when you're expelled from Freemasonry, you're basically out. So I lost all of those friendships. Every single one of them. I haven't seen any of those people in, I'm not sure. Well, since that day."
Thompson suspects the state's grand master issued an edict barring local Masons from talking about the situation or talking to him. This would be in line with how other business was handled, he said, and also provides a kind of salve to the silence he has felt from the men inside the lodge, the men he was so close with until that day.
"I think that it is ridiculous that a fraternity founded on liberty and equality are saying that these men aren't allowed in our fraternity because of their sexual orientation," he said. "And I 100% support their ability to be able to join."
Thompson explored bringing legal charges against the state fraternity to help change the rule but struggled to find lawyers who could take up the case or find constitutional standing to bring a suit.
Such a process would require an advocate with extensive knowledge of Freemasonry and an organization that has an internal judicial system. Such a person would likely need to be a Mason themself, Thompson said, and an active Freemason would never take a case like this.
He decided then to make his story public.
He did not join the brotherhood to be an activist, but he hopes the state's grand lodge will reconsider its ban.
"Tennessee has decided that's the hill they're going to die on," he said.
Staff writer Ricky Young contributed to this report.