Diversity Officer Sues Gallaudet U. Over Gay Marriage Petition Suspension

October 9, 2013 - 1:58 PM

angela mccaskill

Dr. Angela McCaskill (AP)

(CNSNews.com) – Angela McCaskill, the first deaf black woman to earn a Ph.D. from Gallaudet University, is suing her alma mater for placing her on paid administrative leave last fall after she was allegedly challenged by two lesbian professors for signing an online petition to put Maryland’s gay marriage law on the state ballot.

The $16 million federal lawsuit, filed Sept. 27th in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by Baltimore attorney J. Wyndal Gordon, charges that the federally-chartered private university violated the D.C. Human Rights Act and McCaskill’s civil rights when it suspended her for exercising her constitutionally protected religious and free speech rights. (See mccaskill.ang_.complaint.pdf)

McCaskill, who was named chief diversity officer at the nation’s premiere institution of higher learning for the hearing impaired in 2011, was reinstated in January, but says she has been demoted and had her budget slashed by 32 percent as a result of the controversy.

The suit further alleges that the university ignored McCaskill’s own report that Dr. Martina Bienvenu, a co-defendant described as an “openly gay, Caucasian, female co-worker,” had threatened her and attacked her “religion, place of worship, sexual orientation, traditional marriage, race as an African American attending an African Methodist Episcopalian church, and right to participate in the political process free from voter intimidation…and her political affiliation/activities.”

McCaskill said she signed the on-line petition at the suggestion of her pastor at Reid Temple AME Church in Glenn Dale, Md. because she believed in the democratic process. The university has no policies that prohibit employees from engaging in political activities as private citizens. McCaskill has maintained that she never publicly expressed her private views on same-sex marriage and supported gay students at Gallaudet.

Gallaudet University

Campus protest at Gallaudet University. (AP photo)

“The university took this action against me because I was among 200,000 people that signed this petition, exercised my rights,” McCaskill said at a press conference held on the steps of the Maryland State House shortly after her suspension last October. “I felt it was important that we as the citizens of Maryland have an opportunity to vote.”

The statewide referendum to repeal Maryland’s Civil Marriage Protection Act went down to defeat in November 2012 on a 48.8 percent to 51.2 percent vote.

McCaskill was suspended after Bienvenu, a professor of American Sign Language and Deaf Studies, and her partner, Dr. Kendra Smith, chair of Gallaudet’s Counseling Department, published an article about her signing the petition on PlanetDeafQueer.com, described as a Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender publication, according to the lawsuit.

Bienvenu challenged McCaskill after she found her signature posted on the website of the Washington Blade, which describes itself as “America’s leading gay news source.”

When McCaskill told Bienvenu that she “signed the petition at church during a worship service last July,” and that her signature “solely represented her desire to have the same-sex marriage issue vetted through public discourse,” Bienvenu allegedly "responded in a very animated manner with her sign-voice elevated, exclaiming: ‘I am really disgusted with you!’”

After “belittling” McCaskill’s Christian beliefs, Bienvenu then warned her “to discontinue her religious services at her church or suffer dramatic consequences... inferring that harm could come to her home,” the lawsuit maintains.

McCaskill reported Bienvenu’s attack on her First Amendment religious and free speech rights, and Gallaudet President T. Alan Hurwitz initially took her side, referring to Bienvenu as a “bully,” according to the lawsuit. However, he later backed down and suspended her.

“Dr. McCaskill has participated in a legislative initiative that some feel is inappropriate for an individual serving as chief diversity officer,” said Hurwitz in explaining his decision to place her on indefinite administrative leave. He also said that McCaskill could come back to her job, but only if “she and the University community work together to respond to the concerns that have been raised."

Although McCaskill was asked to apologize for signing the petition, “nothing has ever been done to address Plaintiff’s claims against Co-Defendant Bienvenu – not even so much as an investigation” by Hurwitz or Provost Stephen Weiner.

The suit also claims that Bienvenu, vice chair of the Faculty Senate, and Smith “refused to work” with McCaskill upon her return to the university, and that she was “forced to endure verbal abuse, condescension, and castigation for signing Maryland’s same-sex marriage legislative initiative during Faculty Senate meetings while President Hurwitz nonchalantly looked on and did nothing to restore order.”