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Catholic College Class on Marriage Parity Draws Death Threats, Students

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday November 26, 2010

A course being offered at a Catholic college on marriage parity for gay and lesbian families drew death threats--but also plenty of students who want to know what all the fuss is about.

Seton Hall University in Orange, N.J., first made headlines with the class last spring, when church officials spoke out against the class, which is taught by associate professor of political science W. King Mott as part of the Women and Gender Studies program. Mott told the media last spring that the course is not intended to promote marriage rights for gay and lesbian families, but to examine the push for family parity, and the objections to it.

"It is one thing to say 'I am for or against gay marriage,' " said Mott, according to the April 15 edition of the University newspaper, The Setonian. "It's another to actually understand the issue." Aside from looking at the debate around marriage rights in the United States--including state-level marriage equality, which is offered in five states and the District of Columbia, and ballot initiatives such as Proposition 8, which put the rights of minority families up to popular vote--the course will examine the institution of marriage itself in other cultural contexts. The final assignment in the course of study will be an essay on marriage equality.

"I hope my students gain an appreciation and respect for disinterested analysis that can be used to formulate an informed opinion," Mott told The Setonian, adding, "The best schools offer controversial classes. The class is not about advocacy, but about studying the issue from an academic perspective. It's about awareness."

But some in the Catholic hierarchy didn't want to see students offered the class. Newark Archbishop John J. Myers attacked the course as being "not in synch" with Catholic dogma, reported anti-gay religious website on April 30. Moreover, said, the archbishop claimed that the Board of Trustees of the university was encouraging that "whatever action is required under the law to protect the Catholicity of this university" be taken in derailing the course of study.

Slamming Mott as a "homosexualist" professor, the article cited the archbishop as saying, "Recent news that a course on same-sex marriage is proposed for the fall schedule at Seton Hall University troubles me greatly." Myers went on to say that "marriage is a union of man and woman, reflecting the complementarity of the sexes." The Catholic view of marriage, the archbishop claimed, "precedes any societal connotation of marriage, and is based on natural law."

Myers went on to denounce the course, saying that it "seeks to promote as legitimate a train of thought that is contrary to what the Church teaches. As a result, the course is not in synch with Catholic teaching."

The archbishop cited Pope Benedict XVI, who told Catholic American instructors during a 2008 visit that, "Teachers and administrators, whether in universities or schools, have the duty and privilege to ensure that students receive instruction in Catholic doctrine and practice. This requires that public witness to the way of Christ, as found in the Gospel and upheld by the Church's Magisterium, shapes all aspects of an institution's life, both inside and outside the classroom."

The young minds enrolled at the university expressed enthusiasm for the course. Gesina Phillips, a Junior at Seton Hall University and proponent of GLBT equality, told The Setonian that, "I hope to gain new insights into the issue, as well as a great deal of more knowledge about the politics surrounding the gay marriage debate," Phillips said in an e-mail interview.

Anthony Angelella, a Junior, was "surprised" at the offering, added that article, but went on to say that he was "excited to see what can come from it." Added Angelella, "I think that, as a Catholic myself, the class being offered just shows that a Catholic campus doesn't have to be so cut and dry about controversial issues."

In the end, two dozen students were able to go to the class and make up their own minds. The class, titled Special Topics in Political Theory: Gay Marriage, initially came with a few regrettable extras, like the security guard at the door--a response to the angry responses and threats of death from anti-gay religious conservatives that Mott received, the Associated Press reported in a Nov. 26 article.

Describing the twice-weekly class as "very lively," Mott said, "A couple of students said they are not going to tell their parents they are taking a class like this because they don't want the controversy." What they do want, however, is an in-depth analysis of the issue, and that's what they are getting; the class includes gay and straight students, some of whom are opposed to marriage equality, but the class--which concentrates on the public policy aspect, not the morality, or marriage equality--is conducted in an always-civil manner. Said Mott, "No one is demonizing gay people."

Church officials remain opposed to the course, but that has not deterred Mott, who is in a civil union with his same-sex life partner. The men have four children, the AP reported. Nor is Mott a stranger to the church's wrath; the article said that Mott suffered a demotion in 2005, when he was removed as associate dean for the Arts and Sciences department.

Mott intends for the course not to be a one-off. He has plans to teach it once again next year, and keep teaching it as long as marriage equality remains a major topic of debate. "People can demonize me all they want to," Mott told the media. "The important thing is to examine the idea."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.