LEWISTON — An advertisement alleging that gay marriage will be taught in schools unless the new law allowing same-sex marriages is repealed this fall is being refuted by education officials.
"Seeing as there is nothing in Maine education law or rule that even
mentions marriage, I think it's quite unlikely that changing the rules
about marriage would encourage anyone to change what they are teaching
in the classroom," said David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Maine
Department of Education.
The television ad, paid for by the Stand for Marriage Maine campaign, features a couple from Massachusetts, Robb and Robin Wirthlin. They tell the story of how their 7-year-old son's teacher read a book to the class about one prince marrying another prince.
"We knew that (same-sex marriage) was legal in Massachusetts; we just didn't know there would be teachers promoting it in school," said Robin Wirthlin during a conference call with reporters. The Wirthlins filed an unsuccessful lawsuit aimed at stopping public schools from teaching about gay marriage.
Heidi Guarino, chief of staff for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said parents have an opt-out option and the department encourages schools to be flexible. She said she had not heard complaints from parents echoing the concerns of the Wirthlins.
The ad also features Charla Bansley, an English teacher at a private Christian school in Orrington, though she is only identified in the commercial as a teacher from Ellsworth, which is where she lives.
"If (the bill allowing same-sex marriage) becomes law, it takes away more rights than it gives, the right to religious freedom and parental control," she said to reporters. "It's true that (the bill) doesn't specifically mention education, but neither did the Massachusetts law."
Bansley is also the Maine state director for a group called Concerned Women for America. She has been speaking out against the bill for months.
When asked if she was getting paid by the campaign, spokesman Scott Fish said, "I think not, but I don't know for sure."
Jesse Connolly, campaign manager for the No on 1/Protect Marriage Equality campaign, said schools already deal with the fact that children come to school from families with different beliefs.
"To say that gay marriage is going to be taught in school is totally, 100 percent false in my opinion," he said. "There are gay and lesbian families in Maine that have kids in public schools, so if you're asking if those families are already acknowledged in the classroom or by teachers, then I would say yes. But that has nothing to do with this campaign or this bill."
Connerty-Marin said the state has broad guidelines for what must be taught in public schools; local school boards are responsible for creating specific curricula.
"There is nothing that would prohibit a teacher — two years ago, 10 years ago or a year from now — from reading a book to your child that you don't like," he said. "Your recourse would be to talk to your child's teacher, principal, superintendent or school board and ultimately work to change policies or change the people who sit on that school board if you don't agree with those."
Lewiston School Committee Chairman Thomas Shannon said that when local concerns arise, the committee tries to work with parents to provide the "best educational experience for students."
"Nobody is here to force somebody's beliefs on someone else," he said. He added that issues dealing with "gender-specific things" are going to come up at some point, regardless of the outcome of this fall's referendum on the gay marriage law.
"I want every student to be able to be comfortable in school and if the use of a textbook is offensive to a family, I certainly believe that a teacher could find a different book to support the lesson," Shannon said.
He said parents have the right to pull their children out of lessons or discussions in which they don't want them to participate.
Frank Schubert, a consultant hired by the Stand for Marriage Maine campaign, said it is a concern that the people of Maine must rely on local school boards to make curriculum decisions.
"The local school boards will have tremendous influence, obviously, over the curriculum," he said. "That means it is out of the hands of parents, out of the hands of voters on a statewide basis and that is a concern and it's certainly something people need to be aware of."
Fish, spokesman for the Stand for Marriage Maine campaign, said, "If there's ever been a group or governmental entity unresponsive to parents, it's school boards."