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Same-sex marriage supporters condemn action against petition signer

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Gov. Martin O'Malley and other supporters of the law to allow same-sex marriage in Maryland called Thursday for the reinstatement of a university administrator who was placed on leave for signing a petition aimed at overturning the measure.

"Everyone has a right to their opinion, and everyone has a right to participate in the political process," O'Malley said. The legislation, he said, "is about treating everyone fairly and equally under the law."

Opponents of same-sex marriage, meanwhile, described the decision by Gallaudet University to suspend chief diversity officer Angela McCaskill as part of a larger climate of "intimidation" against those who argue for keeping marriage between a man and a woman.

"We get comments all the time from people who have actually had their doors knocked on and just argued with," said the Rev. Derek McCoy, executive director of the Maryland Marriage Alliance. "Tolerance should be a two-way street."

The alliance organized the petition drive that put the same-sex marriage law on the November ballot. McCaskill, Gallaudet's first chief diversity officer, signed the petition last spring. University President T. Alan Hurwitz placed her on paid administrative leave this week.

"It recently came to my attention that Dr. McCaskill has participated in a legislative initiative that some feel is inappropriate for an individual serving as chief diversity officer," Hurwitz said in a message to the university community on Wednesday. He said an interim replacement would be announced "in the near future."

McCaskill could not be reached for comment. A message sent to her university email account Wednesday drew an out-of-office reply, and there was no answer Thursday at the door of her Upper Marlboro home.

The Maryland Marriage Alliance turned in more than 162,000 signatures to the state Board of Elections in June, nearly three times the 56,000 required to put the issue on the ballot and give voters the final say on same-sex marriage.

Under state law, the names of signers are made public so citizens can be confident that the signatures on a petition are legitimate.

"Almost all voter registration information is public information," said Ross Goldstein, deputy state elections administrator. "The only thing that's secret is how you vote."

Same-sex marriage has been a divisive issue in Maryland, with activists on both sides saying they have received violent threats.

Del. Neil Parrott, who reinvigorated the petition process last year with a successful online drive aimed at overturning in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, said he became concerned when he learned those signatures would be made public.

"I was worried a group might put the names out there to intimidate people and scare them from signing petitions," the Western Maryland Republican said.

A bill introduced by Parrott this year to keep the names of signers private died in committee without a vote.

"This is like going into the voting booth," said Parrott. "When you vote for somebody, you don't want people to know who you voted for. You have that same expectation when people sign petitions."

Others said they accepted that the names would be made public, but criticized the decision of media organizations to publish them.

The Washington Blade, which bills itself as "America's leading gay news source," posted the list online under the headline "Who signed the Md. anti-gay marriage petition?" and added an interactive map showing precincts in which signing was most prevalent.

"When media organizations take it upon themselves to promote the list and to publicize the list, I think that it can be seen as an act of intimidation," said Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference.

McCoy, of the marriage alliance, called it "bullying." Blade editor Kevin Naff called the charge "ridiculous."

"It was our responsibility as journalists to make that information available," he said. "People in the state should know that their neighbors are signing petitions to take away their rights."

It was not clear whether the Blade was the source of the information that led Hurwitz to place McCaskill on leave. Naff said Gallaudet was within its rights to take action against her.

"If your job is to be a diversity officer, and you sign a petition to take away the rights of an entire class of people, perhaps you're in the wrong job," he said. "A private university, a private institution of any kind has the right to establish the culture that it wants."

A Gallaudet spokeswoman declined to comment beyond Hurwitz's statement.

O'Malley and other same-sex marriage supporters called on the university to reinstate McCaskill.

"Why, why, why did the university do this?" asked Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat who helped shepherd the legislation through the General Assembly. "It's just wrong to suspend someone for signing a petition to get a bill that was passed through the legislature before the voters of Maryland."

"It was absolutely not the right thing to do," said Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, also a Baltimore Democrat. "The act is not one that I support at all."

Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

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