Teacher cleared in ME gay marriage probe
AUGUSTA, Maine (BP)--In what some are calling a victory for religious freedom and free speech, a Maine licensing board has dismissed all complaints against a high school counselor who came under fire last year for appearing in a TV commercial opposing "gay marriage."
In a 2-1 vote April 9, the Maine Board of Social Worker Licensure dismissed both complaints that had been filed against Donald Mendell Jr., whose social worker's license was in danger of being suspended. After Mendell appeared in an October commercial supporting an initiative known as Question 1 -- which eventually passed, reversing a law that would have legalized "gay marriage" -- a social worker at another school in the same city (Newport) filed a complaint with the board against Mendell, who is a counselor at Nokomis High School.
Mendell taped the ad only after a fellow teacher at his school appeared in a TV ad opposing Question 1. The school's name did not appear in either ad, and Mendell was the only one facing a complaint.
The Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal organization, represented Mendell.
"The government should not punish people because they believe that marriage is the union of one man and one woman and because they say so during a political campaign," ADF attorney Jordan Lorence said in a statement. "The licensing board was right to dismiss these complaints. The First Amendment protects the rights of citizens to speak out on important public policy matters being voted on by the people."
Ironically, the first complaint -- filed on Oct. 19 -- may have helped Question 1 pass because it underscored supporters' main argument: If "gay marriage" is legalized it will negatively impact basic freedoms, including those in public schools. Stand for Marriage Maine -- the group behind Question 1 -- cut a radio commercial arguing that if Question 1 did not pass, "those in power in Maine schools will push [gay marriage] on students just as they are trying to punish one of Maine's best educators for supporting traditional marriage." Question 1 passed by a margin of 53-47 percent.
The Oct. 19 complaint argued that while Mendell was entitled to his own personal beliefs, "he does not have the right as a licensed social worker to make public comments that can endanger or promote discrimination." In the ad, Mendell warned that "gay marriage" would be "pushed on Maine students" if Question 1 didn't pass. A second complaint was filed Oct. 30 by another social worker.
Mendell filed a response to the first complaint Nov. 20, calling it "baseless" and "frivolous" and arguing it was "nothing more than an attack by someone who disagrees with the viewpoint I advocated publicly in a statewide political campaign."
"The complaint assumes that traditional marriage laws are inherently discriminatory, a much debated and controversial conclusion that has been rejected by many state and federal courts around the nation, as well as the voters in 31 states," he wrote. "The voters of Maine rejected the notion that defining marriage as one man and one woman is discriminatory. I cannot be in violation of the ethical standards for social workers when I advocated in favor of the very public policy the State of Maine has on marriage, and has had since its first days as a state in the Union."
Mendell told the Kennebec Journal that the complaints' dismissal 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."
Michael Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.