The suspension of an official whose role is to promote diversity at the nation's premier college for the deaf has sparked boisterous debate involving gay marriage, free speech and what diversity really means.
The controversy began after Angela McCaskill (pictured above), diversity officer at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., was put on paid administrative leave last week because she had signed a petition backing a referendum in neighboring Maryland that would put the state's recently passed same-sex marriage law to a popular vote.
The petition that McCaskill signed is widely seen as an effort by opponents of gay marriage to overturn the law, which was signed by Gov. Martin O'Malley in March. McCaskill, who hasn't revealed her own position on gay marriage, said she signed it to give Maryland residents a chance to vote on same-sex marriage and to spur a campus-wide dialogue on the issue.
McCaskill is the first deaf African-American woman to earn a doctorate from Gallaudet. She was seen as the perfect choice to serve as the university's diversity officer when she was hired for the post last year.
Gallaudet President T. Alan Hurwitz said the college needed time to evaluate whether McCaskill's signing of the petition was appropriate. Though she has a right to sign a petition, CNN quotes Hurwitz as saying, her position as diversity officer has left many people at the college "concerned and confused" by her decision to do so.
"They wanted to know: 'Does that action interfere with her ability to perform her job?' " Hurwitz said.
At a news conference Tuesday in front of the Maryland statehouse in Annapolis, McCaskill said that university officials were attempting to intimidate her. She said the suspension has tarnished her reputation and her nearly quarter century of service.
"No one had the right to determine what my signature meant," she said through an interpreter at the event. She was joined by members of Maryland's legislative black caucus, including some who voted in favor of the same-sex marriage law.
McCaskill hasn't publicly stated her position on gay marriage, and during the press conference she said that she supports all students, regardless of their race or sexual orientation, The Washington Post reports.
McCaskill and her husband signed the petition last summer at their church, her attorney told the Post. When the names on the petition became public earlier this month, a Gallaudet faculty member confronted McCaskill and then alerted university leaders in a formal letter.
Those on either side of the gay-marriage issue have weighed in, asking that McCaskill be reinstated immediately.Marylanders for Marriage Equality, the coalition working to uphold the marriage equality law, have defended McCaskill's right to free speech.
"We strongly disagree with the decision to put the chief diversity officer on leave and hope she is reinstated immediately," campaign manager Josh Levin said in a statement (via The Advocate).
Supporters of the proposed voter referendum also argue that McCaskill has a right to her point of view, saying she's being targeted because of something she did in her private life, and not in her role as a college official.
A group backing the initiative has begun airing an ad, using images of McCaskill and others who have expressed their opposition to same-sex marriage, suggesting they have been persecuted for their views.
As The Baltimore Sun reports, the TV spot shows images of McCaskill using sign language at various events, and briefly refers to Chick-fil-A (the Atlanta-based fast-food chain that became the focus of boycotts last summer after the company's CEO said he supports "the biblical definition" of marriage), as well as the proprietors of a Vermont inn who were sued after refusing to allow a gay wedding at their hotel.
Gallaudet has asked the group behind the ad, Maryland Marriage Alliance, to stop airing the commercial, because it contains copyrighted video.
A spokeswoman for the group said its use of the video footage that includes McCaskill is "fair use."
Those backing McCaskill's suspension say the college is within its right to be concerned.
They include author Frank Schaeffer, who told HuffPost Live that McCaskill's situation is similar to that of a high school physics teacher who believes the solar system is a recent creation.
"If they're teaching physics, they have a role to uphold a scientific approach," Schaeffer said. "I think a diversity officer is in the same position; it's her job description that makes this an interesting story."
The university hopes to resolve the matter in a way that would allow McCaskill to return to her post. But that's likely only if Gallaudet is willing to compensate the official for the emotional distress she endured, along with the damage to her reputation, her attorney said.
"I am dismayed that Gallaudet University is still a university of intolerance, a university that manages by intimidation, a university that allows bullying among faculty, staff and students," McCaskill said during Tuesday's press conference.
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