PORTLAND — The case of a central Maine guidance counselor who spoke against same-sex marriage in 2009 proved a flashpoint of debate Thursday at the University of Southern Maine.

Carroll Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, said Don Mendell’s livelihood was threatened because he spoke out in a television commercial opposing gay marriage. After the commercial aired, other guidance counselors filed a complaint with the state’s licensing board to challenge whether Mendell had violated their professional code of ethics.

“It created an environment of intolerance,” Conley said.

But Mary Bonauto, civil rights project director at Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, said the example of the former Nokomis High School counselor is a red herring that distracts from the real issue of whether voters on Nov. 6 should allow same-sex couples to marry.

“You’re trying to change the subject from marriage to non-discrimination laws,” she said. “Mr. Mendell exercised his right to free speech. He was not fined or fired or punished or anything else.”

Mendell, who is appearing in an anti-gay-marriage ad again this year, was vindicated by the state after the 2009 commercial, but has since quit his job at the Newport school.

The topic of consequences if Mainers approve gay marriage came up several times during the debate attended by about 100, which was sponsored by the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Law Caucus at the University of Maine School of Law.

Maine is one of four states that will vote this fall on whether to allow gay marriage. While Maine gay activists brought the ballot question to voters, the issue in Maryland and Washington is whether to repeal laws that allow gay marriage. And in Minnesota, voters will be asked if they want to approve a constitutional amendment to ban it.

To kick off the debate, Bonauto laid out the issue for voters by saying the ballot question in Maine will allow gay couples to get marriage licenses from the state and it will exempt religious leaders from being required to perform gay marriages if it goes against their beliefs. It also goes a step farther by stating that churches and other religious institutions cannot be sued or lose their tax-exempt status if they refuse to host a gay wedding.

While many of those in the USM audience appeared to be in support of gay marriage, Conley had a small group of supporters of his own. Toward the end of the debate, he remarked that it was a “tough room to work in,” but that he felt it was important to express his concern with the ballot question.

“We do honestly and heartfully believe we need to challenge our culture,” he said.

Bonauto, who has argued several high profile gay rights cases across the country, said opponents should recognize that the desire of gay and lesbian couples to be able to get married would strengthen, not weaken, the institution of marriage.

“It’s a sign of respect for the institution and that promise and commitment,” she said. “I’ve never met anyone who says their marriages have been compromised by letting same-sex couples marry.”

Gay marriage is legal in six states and the District of Columbia.

Calling a mother and father the gold standard, Conley said not enough time has passed to adequately judge whether same-sex couples can raise children.

“We believe both moms and dads matter,” he said.

Bonauto said the American Academy of Pediatrics and other reputable social science organizations have 30 years of studies that prove that the most important element for a child is a stable, loving home.

“When the childrens’ parents can marry it will benefit the children,” she said. “The bottom line is protecting the parents’ relationship is, of course, good for the kids.”

Susan Cover – 621-5643

[email protected]

 

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