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University's diversity chief put on leave after signing anti-gay marriage petition

The chief diversity officer at Gallaudet University was put on administrative leave Wednesday after the school learned she had signed a petition supporting efforts to reverse Maryland’s same-sex marriage law, media reports say.

Dr. Angela McCaskill signed the petition at her church after her preacher spoke against gay marriage, the Planet DeafQueer blog reported on Monday, citing a Gallaudet faculty member who first spotted the administrator’s name on the document. Voters in Maryland will decide on Nov. 6 whether to keep a state law passed earlier this year approving same-sex marriage.

“I want to inform the community that I have placed Dr. Angela McCaskill on paid administrative leave effective immediately. 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,” Gallaudet University President T. Alan Hurwitz said in a statement.

“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."

Gallaudet spokeswoman Catherine Murphy told Buzzfeed that the university did not have "a policy against political participation." When asked about the nature of the petition and if the university had any policy regarding such political participation, Murphy told NBC News in an email: “For the moment we are sticking with this (Hurwitz) statement. Please understand that in an administrative personnel matter we won't be saying anything more until we get complete clarity on what took place.”

McCaskill was the first deaf African American female to earn a Ph.D. from Gallaudet, where she has worked for 23 years in various roles, including becoming the deputy to the president and associate provost of diversity and inclusion in 2011, according to her biography on the university website. She did not respond to an email seeking comment and it was not possible to leave a phone message.

Late Wednesday, the campaign seeking to keep the same-sex marriage law urged the university to reinstate McCaskill.

"We strongly disagree with the decision to put the chief diversity officer on leave and hope she is reinstated immediately," Josh Levin, campaign manager of Marylanders for Marriage Equality, said in a statement. "Everyone is entitled to free speech and to their own opinion about Question 6 (the referendum on the ballot), which is about treating everyone fairly and equally under the law."

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Reaction to the news was mixed on the university’s Facebook page, with some wanting to give McCaskill another chance or to learn more about what happened, and others saying she shouldn’t be in the job.

Teddi Fishman, director of the International Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University, said she would “stop short of saying that this case necessarily involves a lack of integrity.”

“If a person is responsible for ensuring equal opportunities for students regardless of their gender or sexual orientation and that person goes on record as being opposed to equal opportunities for people based on their gender and sexual orientation, it certainly appears that there is some incongruity,” she wrote NBC News in an email.

However, she noted that people also have the right to participate in the democratic process regardless of their work obligations unless they have agreed otherwise or are legally prohibited from doing so. The issue of marriage equality is not the same as the task of ensuring equality in academic settings and some could argue there were reasons -- not based on discrimination -- for opposing gay marriage, she added.

“I would feel comfortable saying, however, that if I were supervising Dr. McCaskill, I would want to talk with her to make sure that her commitment to equal opportunity to all students does indeed extend to them all and to monitor the situation more carefully than I might have done had she not signed the anti-marriage petition,” she said.

A Baltimore Sun poll in late September found that Maryland voters favored legalizing same-sex marriage, 49 percent to 39 percent. The survey of 804 likely voters was conducted from Sept. 25 to 27 by research firm OpinionWorks. The margin of error was 3.5 percentage points.