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

Carroll Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, said Don Mendell had his “livelihood threatened” because he dared to speak out in a television ad 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 for Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, said the example of the former Nokomis High School counselor distracts from the real issue of whether voters should allow same-sex couples to marry.

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

The debate, sponsored by the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Law Caucus, drew about 100 people to the University of Maine School of Law.

Maine is one of four states that will vote Nov. 6 on whether to allow gay marriage.

To begin the debate, Bonauto laid out the issue for voters by saying the ballot question in Maine would allow gay couples to get marriage licenses from the state and exempt religious leaders from being required to perform gay marriages if it goes against their beliefs. It also says 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 in the audience appeared to support gay marriage, Conley had a small group of supporters. Toward the end of the debate, he said it was a “tough room to work in” but he felt it was important to express his concern about the ballot question.

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