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04/12/2010

Uhm, Mr. Mendell, I came for college advice, not to hear about my lesbian mother's eternal future

by Jeremy Hooper

You might remember Donald Mendell, the guidance counselor from Maine's Nokomis Regional High School who chose to inject himself into his state's gay rights debate. In a 12/01/08 letter to the Bangor Daily News, he referred to marriage equality as "a change that strikes to the heart of the Sacraments," denying that same-sex marriage is something that "our Lord would support." In a 1/4/09 web comment, he intimated that marriage for gay couples will "ridicule tradition and belief in natural law." There's also this 1/22/09 Bangor Daily News letter warning of the "myriad of ramifications" that will supposedly accompany marriage equality. Plus there's a 5/2/09 letter in which he warns "thinking folks" of the "age-old ruse" of comparing homosexuality to race. And last but not least in terms of letters, there's the 9/26/09 BDN letter where he officially came out in support of 'Yes on 1," immediately prompting Stand For Marriage Maine to tout his words on their official site. All of which led to his participation in an official "Yes on 1" campaign ad:

You might also remember that because of these actions, some local citizens filed a licensing complaint against Mr. Mendell. Such is any citizen's right. But on Friday, a board rejected their right to reject the complaints:

NEWPORT -- A state board on Friday dismissed a pair of licensing complaints that were filed last year against a Nokomis High School guidance counselor about his appearance in a television advertisement opposing gay marriage.
...
Mendell, contacted at home Friday, said he attended the licensing hearing in person Friday morning and that the vote to dismiss the complaints was 2-1 by the three-member board.
Teacher cleared in ad on gay vows [Kennebec Journal]

Which is actually fine, in and of itself. As we said all through this process, the decision to file a complaint against Mendell was in no way the violation that he and "yes on 1" made it out to be. Any citizen can file an ethics claim on any number of bases, and then it's up to the proper bodies to determine their validity. And in fact, this complaint would have likely remained 100% anonymous, had "yes on1" not politicized it as part of their side's campaigning.

But of course Mendell and his lawyers at the Alliance Defense Fund have a much different take. More from Kennebec Journal:

"This has been difficult to have this kind of threatening feeling of my livelihood, my licensing to practice social work being in peril because I participated in the referendum, the political system," Mendell said. "So it feels like vindication -- not just for me, but for any person who wants to fully participate in the democratic system. People should hopefully take this as a sort of civics lesson that free speech is precious and we all have that right."

Mendell has been represented by lawyers from The Alliance Defense Fund, a national organization that specializes in "legal defense and advocacy of religious freedom."

In a statement, the organization said the licensing board was right to dismiss the complaint because "the government should not punish people because they believe that marriage is defined as one man and one woman, and because they say so during a political campaign."
...
Mendell said the dismissal of the complaints gives him courage to "continue to speak out if I feel undue pressures are put on kids."

"I'm speaking out that I do believe in equal rights of children to have a mother and father, if at all possible," Mendell said, "and I will take stands against things that I feel threaten children from having access to a mother and father, especially if that's going to be taught in schools to minors."

Teacher cleared in ad on gay vows [Kennebec Journal]

And this is where we again take issue. Because first off: Mr. Mendell didn't merely participate in the referendum process. As we showed you in the links at the beginning of this post, he has written some absolutely vicious things about gays, their love, and the negative way that God supposedly views it all. Yes, it's free speech, which we of course support. But those who file a complaint have simply exercised their own right. So for Mendell to suggest that this is "some sort of civics lesson" on free speech? Well yes, it kind of is: It shows that free speech goes both ways.

Secondly: The idea that Mendell has been "punished" is beyond offensive to local equality-minded folks. This is a man whose paycheck is paid by public monies. Local residents have every last right to question actions that they think could constitute a church/state violation, or any other conflict of interests. That is what those who filed a complaint against Mendell did: They used the process to gauge whether a violation had occurred. And again, had "yes on 1" and Mendell not politicized the thing --- itself constituting an aggressive action against LGBT people and allies -- this ethics matter would have largely remained between the involved parties, not the public at large. But the other side did publicize it. They did proudly boast about their desire to allow public school faculty and staff to use faith-based condemnations against certain kinds of people, and to punish them in terms of civil marriage equality. All the "no on 1" side did was react.

Lastly: Mendell acts like this decision puts wind under his sails to speak out even more aggressively against those students who might have gay parents, or who themselves might be LGBT. Well okay, he has that right. But in doing so, he's only going to raise more red flags. And if he continues to preach damnation while on taxpayer payroll, then he very well might see more complaints like the ones filed against him this year. That's because public schools are not places where certain kind of tax-paying citizens should feel scared to tread: They are to be open to all who make the community what it is. Our side's pro-equality teaching encourages inclusivity, only calling out that which violates others' freedoms. Mendell and ADF's advocacy work strikes a massive blow in the minds and souls of anyone who loves, accepts, and embraces their LGBT friends, parents, children, or neighbors. There is no comparison between the two sides.

So in summation: A local board has found that Mr. Mendell's actions are not in violation of the terms of his licensing, something that we pretty much expected to happen. But a major spotlight has been placed on the anti-equality far-right and their dual attempt to seize the "victim" role while simultaneously vowing to hurt, stifle, and stop those pesky kinds of tax-paying citizens who "threaten children from having access to a mother and father." They can call that a win, if they wish. We who highlight our organized opposition's "culture war" overreaching see it quite differently.

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