March 4, 2010

Marriage debate turns to schools

SUSAN M

— By . COVER

Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — What may or may not be taught in Maine schools if the state's gay-marriage law is upheld by voters is once again becoming a central issue in the fight over Question 1.

Opponents of same-sex marriage released a television ad Wednesday that features a Massachusetts couple who say their 7-year-old son was taught about gay marriage at school.

The ad says that the same thing could happen in Maine if a state law legalizing gay marriage is not overturned by voters on Nov. 3.

But the state Department of Education says that Maine standards are different from those in Massachusetts and that there are no mentions of marriage -- heterosexual or homosexual -- in Maine Learning Results.

''A change in the definition of marriage in Maine changes nothing in terms of what schools can and must teach,'' said the department's spokesman, David Connerty-Marin. ''There is nothing in there whatsoever that deals with marriage.''

Scott Fish, spokesman for the Yes on 1 campaign, said opponents of the same-sex marriage law want people to know what happened in Massachusetts after that state began allowing gay marriages in 2003.

''If the definition of marriage changes to the union of any two people, then that will be taught in schools,'' he said.

The Massachusetts example stems from a lawsuit in which two sets of parents sued the Lexington school system after teachers read or distributed books that featured gay couples.

The parents in the Maine ad, Robb and Robin Wirthlin, sued after their 7-year-old son came home one day in 2006 and said his second-grade teacher had read aloud a book called ''King and King.''

The book tells the story of a prince who falls in love with another prince and gets married, according to court documents filed in the case.

The Wirthlins met with school officials and asked to be notified in advance if the subject was going to come up again.

The school refused, saying that although parents can opt to pull their students out of certain sex education classes, that type of discussion did not meet the definition.

The 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Massachusetts agreed with the school system and disagreed with the parents that the school was attempting to ''indoctrinate'' their child.

''Public schools are not obligated to shield individual students from ideas which potentially are religiously offensive, particularly when the school imposes no requirement that the student agree with or affirm those ideas or even participate in discussions about them,'' the justices wrote.

Unlike in Maine, Massachusetts' statewide standards require ''family life'' education, in which elementary school students are supposed to be able to ''describe different types of families,'' the court decision said.

The justices concluded that ''given that Massachusetts has recognized gay marriage under its state constitution, it is entirely rational for its schools to educate their students regarding that recognition.''

In Maine, Connerty-Marin said the state sets academic standards and general guidelines, while many curriculum decisions are made at the local level. Regardless of the outcome of the vote on Nov. 3, schools may already be talking about marriage. But they are not mandated by the state to do so, he said.

''Curriculum is a local matter, and some districts may have chosen to include something about marriage in a lesson plan,'' he said.

Gay-marriage supporters say the ad is a retread of a similar commercial that aired in California when voters there rejected same-sex marriage.

''The fact that the Yes campaign would literally repackage the same ad their California consultants used in California is a testament to the national outsiders pushing their agenda on the voters of Maine,'' said a prepared statement from Jesse Connolly, campaign manager for the No on 1 campaign.

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