As uproar fades, Seton Hall students meet to study gay marriage

November 23, 2010

SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. (RNS) It is the class that wasn't supposed to
happen.


In a basement classroom at Seton Hall University, 24 undergraduates
meet twice a week for a course known as "Special Topics in Political
Theory: Gay Marriage."


Most of the tension that surrounded the first few weeks of class has
disappeared. The security guard who stood outside the door the first
week is gone. The death threats against the professor have died down.


But a few students still haven't told their families they are taking
the school's most talked-about and controversial course.


"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," said W. King Mott, the associate professor teaching the
course. "But it's a very lively class."


The three-credit course made headlines last spring when Newark
Archbishop John J. Myers questioned whether a Catholic university should
be teaching students about a topic the church opposes.


"The course is not in sync with Catholic teaching," Myers said at
the time.


Seton Hall's board of trustees, which includes Myers, convened a
committee over the summer to look into the proposed course. For a time,
many on campus assumed the class would be canceled.


But when the semester started, Mott was permitted by Seton Hall
administrators to teach the class over the objections of the church.


Mott, who is one of Seton Hall's few openly gay professors, spent
weeks fielding "hate-filled e-mails and phone calls" from anti-gay and
pro-Catholic protesters around the country. Several threats were
specific enough to notify local police, and a security guard was briefly
assigned to his classroom door, he said.


Though the class has gone on without incident, Seton Hall officials
have repeatedly declined to publicly discuss the controversy surrounding
the course. Seton Hall also declined to allow The Star-Ledger to observe
or photograph the gay marriage class or interview students, though the
university has regularly allowed media coverage of undergraduate classes
in the past.


"To allow press presence in a small class on a sensitive topic about
which there is significant public debate could stifle the atmosphere of
freedom of discussion," said a statement released by Seton Hall Provost
Larry Robinson's office.


Church officials also declined to discuss the gay marriage class,
except to say Myers still believes Seton Hall should not offer the
course. "His position has not changed," said James Goodness, Myers'
spokesman.


Mott said he designed the gay marriage course to explore a public
policy issue, not to advocate for one side. Mott is in a civil union
with his partner, who works in real estate. The couple has four
daughters.


The gay marriage class includes a mix of gay and straight students
and a few undergraduates who oppose some aspects of same-sex marriage,
the professor said. But class discussions have always been respectful.


"No one is demonizing gay people," Mott said.


Despite all of the controversy, Mott plans to teach the class again
next fall. Under Seton Hall's rules, if a special topics class is taught
three times, the professor can propose it become a permanent class. Mott
said he would like to have the gay marriage class offered every year as
long as the issue is part of the national debate.


"People can demonize me all they want to," Mott said. "The important
thing is to examine the idea."