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."