NEWPORT, Maine — Competing television commercials in the same-sex marriage debate in Maine pit one Nokomis Regional High School educator against another over the issue of whether the law would affect what’s taught in public schools.
Nokomis literacy coach Sherri Gould first appeared in an advertisement last month for the “No on 1” campaign. The ad rebutted a previous commercial that claimed Maine’s same-sex marriage law would lead to “homosexual marriage being taught in schools whether parents like it or not.”
Gould, a former English teacher, appeared in the rebuttal for only a few seconds.
“I’ve been teaching in Maine since 1983,” she said. “We teach respect and Maine values. That will never change.”
Then Donald Mendell, a Nokomis guidance counselor, appeared in another advertisement rebutting Gould’s, which claims a same-sex marriage law in California resulted in children being taught about homosexual marriage.
“This Maine teacher is a gay activist already pushing this type of agenda,” said Mendell, motioning toward Gould’s image on a television screen. “Vote yes on Question 1 to prevent homosexual marriage from being pushed on Maine students.”
The Rev. Bob Emrich of Stand for Marriage Maine, who leads the effort to repeal Maine’s same-sex marriage law, said the competing advertisements illustrate that there’s a high level of confusion and uncertainty among Mainers about the side effects of the law. But Mark Sullivan of Protect Maine Equality, a spokesman for the “No on 1” campaign, said the law passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. John Baldacci in May says nothing about education curricula and that the advertisement was “a shameful attempt to scare parents.”
In response to a request from Maine Education Commissioner Susan Gendron, Attorney General Janet Mills issued a ruling Thursday that the state’s definition of marriage has “no bearing on the curricula in our public schools,” but that likely will do little to quiet the debate.
Mendell, of Palmyra, said he chose to involve himself in the “Yes on 1” campaign because in 36 years of counseling, he has seen the stress having homosexual parents can cause for adolescents.
“My business has been to do the best I can to help mitigate difficult situations and help them develop and grow despite hardships,” said Mendell. “To have those hardships codified into law is wrong, in my opinion.”
Emrich said Mendell was chosen for the advertisement because of his articulate position on the issue, not because he works in the same school as Gould.
“The fact that [the No on 1 commercial] had another teacher from Nokomis in the end was irrelevant,” said Emrich. “We hesitated for that very reason because we didn’t want to create any kind of a conflict. [Mendell and Gould] will be working together long after the referendum is over.”
Gould, of Corinna, the 2005 Maine Teacher of the Year and former founding adviser to the Gay-Straight Alliance at Nokomis, said neither her commercial nor Mendell’s has caused any tension or problems. She said she hasn’t spoken with Mendell since the commercials first aired, but not because of any animosity between them. Her only complaint is that he referred to her as a “gay activist” and implied that she is pushing a gay agenda. Gould is married to a man and they have three children.
“I don’t even know what a gay agenda is,” she said. “I just want all students and all people to be respected equally.”
Mendell said he values equality too, but his definition of the word in this context is that “all children should have an equal right to having a mother and a father.”
Mendell declined to answer any questions about Gould or the fact that they are co-workers.
“I don’t want to get into any of that stuff,” he said.
Nokomis Principal Mary Nadeau said Gould’s and Mendell’s activism hasn’t caused any difficulties at the school and won’t as long as they continue speaking for themselves and not for Nokomis.
“That applies to anybody on any issue,” said Nadeau.
Besides, she continued, having educators with differing opinions has taught students a valuable lesson that has nothing to do with gay marriage.
“It was a good lesson for staff and students about the civic right that people have to express their opinions,” she said. “It’s their right to have an opinion but it can be separate from our work and our learning environment.”