Neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson stepped down Wednesday as commencement speaker at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine after complaints from students about controversial comments concerning same-sex marriage.
The withdrawal came less than a week after medical school Dean Paul B. Rothman chastised Carson for his comments and met with graduating students concerned that the famed physician was an inappropriate commencement speaker.
Carson sent Rothman a letter saying that he didn't want to "distract from the celebratory nature of the day."
"Given all the national media surrounding my statements as to my belief in traditional marriage, I believe it would be in the best interest of the students for me to voluntarily withdraw as your commencement speaker this year," he wrote in the letter to Rothman, which the dean shared with the Hopkins community.
Neither Rothman nor Carson was available for comment Wednesday night.
"This was purely Dr. Carson's decision," said Hopkins spokeswoman Kim Hoppe in an email, adding that the university did not ask him to give up the speaking engagement.
As Carson, 61, prepares to retire from medicine in June, he has become more outspoken about his political and social views. He criticized President Barack Obama's health care reform law at the National Prayer Breakfast in February, which made him a darling of conservatives.
But his comments about same-sex marriage during a recent appearance on Fox News caused the latest backlash, bringing complaints from Hopkins faculty and students.
The physician's comparison of homosexuals to members of the North American Man/Boy Love Association, a pedophile advocacy group, and those who engage in bestiality, prompted a petition by Hopkins students seeking his removal as commencement speaker.
"Marriage is between a man and a woman," Carson said during the television appearance. "No group, be they gays, be they NAMBLA, be they people who believe in bestiality, it doesn't matter what they are — they don't get to change the definition."
Carson also stepped down as speaker for the Johns Hopkins University School of Education diploma ceremony. New speakers have not been chosen for either commencement address.
"We will now begin the process of identifying a new speaker," Hoppe said.
Carson apologized for his rhetoric last week, but also said he stands behind his views on the issue. He previously said he would step down as commencement speaker if that was what students wanted.
"I am sorry for any embarrassment this has caused," he wrote in an apology letter to faculty and students last week. "But what really saddens me is that my poorly chosen words caused pain for some members of our community, and for that I offer a most sincere and heartfelt apology.
"Although I do believe marriage is between a man and a woman, there are much less offensive ways to make that point," he continued. "I hope all will look at a lifetime of service over some poorly chosen words."
In his most recent letter to Rothman, Carson said he hoped there would be more tolerance for views like his in the future.
"Someday in the future, it is my hope and prayer that the emphasis on political correctness will decrease and we will start emphasizing rational discussion of differences so we can actually resolve problems and chart a course that is inclusive of everyone," he wrote.
Rothman last week had described Carson's comments on same-sex marriage as "hurtful" and chastised him for using offensive language.
"It is clear that the fundamental principle of freedom of expression has been placed in conflict with our core values of diversity, inclusion and respect," Rothman wrote in the letter to colleagues that also was posted on the Hopkins website.
Jordan White, a student at Hopkins' school of public health, said Wednesday that it was unfortunate that the comments are "the legacy that Ben Carson is leaving us."
"We have divergent views and we need to be mindful and thoughtful about how we express them because they can hurt people," White said. "There's many colleagues at the university who are gay or lesbian, or transgender — that was offensive to them."
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Others said it looked like Carson was pressured to step down because of his views.
"I think it was unfortunate that he was encouraged to step down because he was expressing his First Amendment rights on this issue," said David A. Ferguson, head of the Maryland Republican Party. " I don't think it's fair. I don't think it's in the spirit of the university environment where you're supposed to respect diversity of opinions."
Derek McCoy, whose group Maryland Family Alliance opposes same-sex marriage, said Carson should not have stepped down and that liberals' tolerance of views is one-sided when it comes to gay issues.
"Here you have a doctor who has had an incredible, impeccable medical career, but yet because he makes a fundamental stance about what he believes about marriage, he is suddenly ostracized," McCoy said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Carrie Wells contributed to this report.