Student demonstrators crowded outside a Towson University event Monday evening where Republican attorney general candidate Michael Peroutka and lieutenant governor candidate Gordana Schifanelli were scheduled to speak.

The event, organized by Turning Point USA’s Towson University chapter, was titled “The Constitution, What’s In It For Me?” The demonstration was organized by members of Towson’s chapter of Young Democratic Socialists of America.

About 60 students protested outside West Village Commons, shouting “No Cox on our campus, no hate on our campus.”

Some students held signs echoing their chants. “Separate church and state,” one said. “Stop racist politics,” read another. Inside the event, students questioned the candidates about past affiliations and statements.

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Peroutka is a lawyer and a former Anne Arundel County Council member, who was once a member of the League of the South, an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as “explicitly racist” with a goal of establishing “a Christian theocratic state.” Peroutka once led a League of the South event in singing “Dixie,” which he called the “national anthem.”

In 2004, Peroutka ran for president as a member of the Constitution Party on a platform to “Honor God, Defend the Family, Restore the Republic,” The Baltimore Banner reported in July, but was considered a long shot. He was endorsed by Republican gubernatorial nominee Dan Cox. Cox’s running mate, Schifanelli, is an attorney and law professor at the Annapolis Naval Academy.

Tim Yalinkilincer, media and communications director for Turning Point’s Towson chapter, said the group chose to invite Peroutka because he has a lot of experience with the U.S. Constitution.

“College students are not educated enough about the Constitution and aren’t as grateful for the Constitution as they should be,” Yalinkilincer said. He said the event was an important way for students to learn more.

He said Schifanelli, who is from the former Yugoslavia, could speak to the experience of living in a socialist country, he said, and to “what it feels like to have your rights taken from you.”

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Richard Soucy, chair of Towson’s chapter of Young Democratic Socialists of America and a senior at Towson, said the group heard about the event a week ago and immediately started planning.

The chapter’s central committee held emergency meetings, Soucy said. They reached out to student groups to see if any wanted to collaborate. They discussed how to handle media coverage. They paid out of pocket for supplies, such as posters, stencils, paint and a megaphone, Soucy said.

“We organized it to show that [the] hate speech, neo-Confederacy, racism and bigotry that Mike Peroutka was peddling is not OK whatsoever, and that as a campus community we do not stand for it,” Soucy said.

They don’t believe the event should have happened, Soucy said. “It’s absolutely disgusting and vile that they invited a neo-Confederate to speak. Unequivocally, there is no excuse,” they added.

Schifanelli — who appeared by video call — and Peroutka each spoke for around 10 minutes, and then took questions from the crowd, who filled almost the entire ballroom.

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Peroutka argued that there are five specific presuppositions contained in the Declaration of Independence. “All men are created equal,” he says, which presupposes that “there was a creation and a creator,” and thus, that “there is a God,” he said.

Another presupposition, he said, is that the government derives “their powers from the consent of the governed.” The Constitution, he said, indicates the people’s consent.

Peroutka argued that COVID-19 lockdowns were unconstitutional, “where a health crisis was used as a basis or an excuse to deny our rights to assemble, our rights to worship, our rights to run our own business, our rights to have autonomy over our own body, and our right educate our children,” he said.

The “separation of church and state is really a great lie,” he said, because they were “both ordained by God.”

When a student asked about Peroutka’s affiliation with the League of the South, he responded, “I don’t have any ties to a white supremacist group and I’m not a white supremacist and I’m not a racist.” He said he resigned from the group after a leader spoke against interracial marriage, a comment he did not agree with, he said, though he said the leader was not speaking for the group.

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But many Towson University students were not happy with the answers to their questions, nor the sentiments expressed by the candidates.

Jayden Johnstone, a junior, asked Peroutka about a past comment in which Peroutka implied that same-sex marriage was not legal. He asked whether that might be considered an attack on same-sex marriage.

“Marriage is not something that is within the civil government’s jurisdiction to define or redefine. I believe that marriage is between a man and woman as defined by God,” Peroutka responded, though he said as attorney general he would not have the power to overturn laws.

The comment offended him, Johnstone said. “Just to have someone who might get elected say that stuff really hurts my confidence in the government.”

Briana Sturdivant and Danielle Taylor, both Towson freshmen, were particularly concerned about Peroutka’s affiliation with the the League of the South, and questioned Peroutka’s account of leaving the group after hearing a leader’s view about interracial marriage.

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“You joined the group, so how could you not already know their takes?” Taylor asked.

Sturdivant and Taylor felt that the politicians both spent a large amount of time dodging questions, they said, and were especially dismissive of viewpoints they didn’t agree with, Sturdivant said.

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