BALTIMORE (CNS) — The executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference called it alarming that a university would sanction one of its officials for signing a petition to bring Maryland’s same-sex marriage law to a public referendum.

“To express a desire that marriage is and should remain a union between one man and one woman is not hate speech,” Mary Ellen Russell said Oct. 11.

“To believe that marriage between a man and a woman is foundational to society and the most beneficial way of raising children is not a bigoted position. Or at least hasn’t been until now,” the head of the Catholic conference said in an email to The Catholic Review, Baltimore’s archdiocesan newspaper.

Angela McCaskill, chief diversity officer at Gallaudet University in Washington, was reportedly among more than 160,000 signatories on a petition to put Maryland’s law legalizing same-sex marriage on the Nov. 6 ballot for referendum.

Gallaudet University president T. Alan Hurwitz released a statement to the university community Oct. 10 saying that McCaskill, a resident of Maryland, was placed on paid administrative leave.

“If Marylanders do not repeal the same-sex marriage law by voting against Question 6, what happened to Dr. Angela McCaskill is just a taste of what will happen to religious institutions, ministries, businesses and other individuals,” Russell said.

McCaskill has worked 23 years for the university, which serves people who are deaf and hard of hearing. Hurwitz appointed her to her most recent position in January 2011.

“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; however, other individuals feel differently,” Hurwitz said. “I will use the extended time while she is on administrative leave to determine the appropriate next steps taking into consideration the duties of this position at the university. In the meantime an interim chief diversity officer will be announced in the near future.”

In an Oct. 16 statement, Hurwitz said the university wanted to work with McCaskill “to enable her to return to the community.” Placing her on paid leave was “a prudent action” to allow her and the university “the time to consider this question after the emotions of first reactions subsided,” he said.

The names and addresses of petition signers were made public and searchable in July by the Washington Blade, a publication that covers the gay community.

Derek McCoy, Maryland Marriage Alliance chairman, said in a statement that he was in “complete dismay” over the decision, and noted that signing the petition “does not automatically declare” McCaskill’s support for or against same-sex marriage. “It merely indicates that she wants to see the decision made by the people and not the Legislature,” he said.

“Quite simply, it was well within her rights to sign the petition. And furthermore, it is the responsibility of all American citizens to be engaged in the electoral process,” he said.

If her employer “is able to restrict her right to engage in the petition-gathering process phase of democracy,” is her employer “also allowed to enter the voting booth and dictate how she votes?” McCoy asked.

A representative for Marylanders for Marriage Equality, which supports legalizing same-sex marriage in the state, said the organization also opposes Gallaudet’s decision.

The Maryland Catholic Conference helped to gather signatures as part of the Maryland Marriage Alliance, a coalition of organizations working to overturn the law. The number of certified signatures collected far surpassed the 56,000 needed to place the measure on the ballot.

The conference advocates for public policy on behalf of the bishops of Maryland. The Diocese of Wilmington, Del., and the Archdiocese of Washington also are members of the conference because their jurisdictions include Maryland counties.

According to the university, McCaskill was the first deaf African-American woman to earn a doctorate from Gallaudet.

“Dr. McCaskill is uniquely qualified to assume this position, based on her education, knowledge and experience,” Hurwitz said at the time he named her chief diversity officer. “I have every confidence that she is the right person to help Gallaudet achieve its goal of creating a campus climate that is accepting and respectful of every member of our community.”

In his Oct. 16 statement, Hurwitz said that while he expected a resolution “can be reached that will enable Dr. McCaskill to continue as our chief diversity officer, this will require that she and the university community work together to respond to the concerns that have been raised.”

***

Wiering is on the staff of The Catholic Review, newspaper of the Baltimore Archdiocese.