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Gallaudet wrong to suspend official over same-sex marriage petition

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Finally, something both sides in Maryland's gay marriage debate can agree on: Gallaudet University should not have suspended its chief diversity officer for signing the petition that put Question 6 on the ballot this November. The heads of the campaigns both for and against the marriage equality law have condemned the university president's decision, and they're right. Angela McCaskill should not face punishment in her job for political activity in her private life, even if signing the petition might seem at odds with her official duties. University president T. Alan Hurwitz owes her an apology and immediate reinstatement.

Ms. McCaskill's participation in the petition drive that put Maryland's marriage equality act on the ballot appears to have come to light after an anonymous Gallaudet faculty member found her name on an online database of signers posted by The Washington Blade. According to The Blade and other press reports, the faculty member passed the information along to Mr. Hurwitz, who decided to place her on leave. In a statement to The Blade, Mr. Hurwitz expressed some ambivalence about the situation, noting that some think that participating in the petition drive was inappropriate for someone in her position and that others think differently. He said he would use the time she is on leave to consider the matter.

That's a dangerous road to travel down. How we actually vote is private, but virtually everything else about our participation in the electoral process is public: what petitions we sign, what parties we register with, when we vote, which candidates we donate money to and how much. Might someone consider it inappropriate if a chief diversity officer registered as a Republican, since that party's platform opposes gay marriage? What if she had donated money to Mitt Romney? Could the Catholic Church start cracking down on priests who register as Democrats, given that party's support for gay marriage and abortion rights?

The university has a right to evaluate Ms. McCaskill based on how well she does her job, not what she thinks, and there appears to have been no indication before this incident that she was insensitive to the needs of gay and lesbian students on campus. In fact, she was reportedly a strong supporter of the creation of the school's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Ally Resource Center a year ago. We don't know why Ms. McCaskill signed the petition — she has not spoken publicly about it. Gay and lesbian students on campus likely have a lot of questions for her, and she deserves to be able to discuss the matter with them without fearing that her job is on the line. Those conversations would likely be educational for all involved, and isn't that what college is supposed to be about?

Meanwhile, Mr. Hurwitz's actions threaten much greater damage to the cause he was trying to champion. Derek McCoy, the head of the Maryland Marriage Alliance, was quick to suggest that Ms. McCaskill's suspension is a harbinger of things to come if voters approve same-sex marriage. "If such attacks can be made before same-sex marriage is law, how can homosexual activists in good faith say that religious liberties will not be attacked if Question 6 passes?" he said.

That's a familiar theme in the effort to stop gay marriage at the ballot box. In Maine, where the issue is also up for a vote, the campaign opposing gay marriage recently started airing television ads featuring a former high school guidance counselor, Donald Mendell, who was subject to a professional licensure complaint after he appeared in another television ad opposing gay marriage in 2009. Maine's Department of Professional and Financial Regulation ruled in his favor, according to the Associated Press, though he subsequently quit his job. No doubt the opposition to marriage equality in Maryland would love to hold Ms. McCaskill up as a martyr, too.

But no matter what the opponents of Question 6 say, Maryland's gay marriage law strongly protects religious liberties. It says religious organizations will still determine their own rules for what marriages they perform and recognize and prohibits civil claims or state sanctions against religious organizations or their employees for the failure to provide goods or services in connection with a marriage in opposition to their beliefs. The First Amendment, meanwhile, protects the free speech rights of people like Ms. McCaskill.

Question 6 isn't about legally mandated political correctness. It's about equal protection under the law for everyone — whether they believe in same-sex marriage or not.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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