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Lawsuit by Gallaudet diversity official dismissed

Angela McCaskill, Wyndal Gordon, Maryland marriage petition, same sex marriage, gay marriage, Gallaudet University, Washington Blade, gay news

Angela McCaskill was suspended after she signed a petition to place Maryland’s same-sex marriage law on the ballot in a voter referendum. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

A federal judge has dismissed a discrimination and defamation lawsuit filed by Gallaudet University’s former chief diversity officer against the university and two out lesbian faculty members who were accused of damaging her reputation by implying she held anti-gay views.

The lawsuit stemmed from an October 2012 decision by the university’s president to suspend Angela McCaskill from her job as Associate Provost of Diversity and Inclusion after news surfaced that she signed a petition to place Maryland’s same-sex marriage law on the ballot in a voter referendum.

McCaskill, a Maryland resident, stated at the time that she signed the petition when it was being circulated at her church. She said her intention was to allow Maryland voters to decide on the gay marriage question and that she had taken no public position on the issue.

Some of the university’s gay students expressed concern that McCaskill’s decision to sign the petition was contrary to her role as chief diversity officer, which they said called for her to be sensitive to students and faculty who supported marriage equality.

The lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, accused Gallaudet faculty members Martina “MJ” Bienvenu and her partner Kendra Smith of pressuring Gallaudet President T. Alan Hurwitz into violating the D.C. Human Rights Act by illegally suspending McCaskill.

The lawsuit called the suspension a form of retaliation against McCaskill for her decision to exercise her constitutional right to sign a petition on a pending civic matter.

In a 24-page opinion handed down on April 14, U.S. District Court Judge James E. Boasberg approved a motion by Gallaudet’s attorneys calling for the dismissal of the case on grounds that McCaskill “has not sufficiently pled facts to support any of her claims” of retaliation or discrimination.

Among other things, McCaskill’s attorney, J. Wyndal Gordon, argued that the university’s decision to suspend McCaskill for signing the petition violated a provision of the D.C. Human Rights Act that bans discrimination based on “political affiliation.”

But Boasberg noted that the Human Rights Act defines “political affiliation” as belonging to or endorsing a political party. He said that provision of the act clearly didn’t apply to the university’s action toward McCaskill.

The judge similarly ruled that the university’s decision to suspend McCaskill because it believed her decision to sign a petition placing the gay marriage law before voters, where it could have been overturned, did not violate the Human Rights Act’s ban on discrimination based on her religion, race, or marital status as she claimed in the lawsuit.

McCaskill stated in her lawsuit that lesbian faculty member Bienvenu confronted her at a meeting and criticized her for signing an “anti-gay” petition.

McCaskill “attempted to shoehorn a First Amendment argument into her complaint against Gallaudet by dressing it up as an employment discrimination allegation,” Boasberg said in his decision.

“While a citizen has an unfettered right to petition her government, such a constitutional claim aimed at Gallaudet cannot succeed here, as the university and its employees are private parties not subject to the First Amendment’s strictures,” he said.

Boasberg’s ruling dismissing the lawsuit came several months after Gordon, McCaskill’s attorney, dismissed Bienvenu and Smith from the lawsuit while raising the possibility of filing a separate lawsuit against them in D.C. Superior Court.

Gordon couldn’t immediately be reached to determine whether he and McCaskill plan to file a separate lawsuit against Bienvenu and Smith. Justin M. Flint, the attorney representing Bienvenu and Smith, didn’t immediately return a call from the Blade seeking comment.

23
Apr
2014

Gallaudet official sues after marriage flap

Angela McCaskill, Wyndal Gordon, Maryland marriage petition, same sex marriage, gay marriage, Gallaudet University, Washington Blade, gay news

Gallaudet University Chief Diversity Officer Angela McCaskill (left) says the school discriminated against her after she signed an anti-gay marriage petition last year. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Gallaudet University’s chief diversity officer filed a $16 million discrimination and defamation lawsuit on Sept. 27 against the university and two out lesbian faculty members on grounds that they “tarnished” her professional reputation by implying she held anti-gay views.

The university’s president suspended Angela McCaskill from her job as Associate Provost of Diversity and Inclusion last October after news surfaced that she signed a petition to place Maryland’s same-sex marriage law on the November ballot in a voter referendum.

McCaskill, a Maryland resident, explained at the time that she signed the petition when it was circulated at her church. She said her intention was to allow Maryland voters to decide on the gay marriage question and that she had taken no public position on the controversial issue.

The 39-page lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia accuses Gallaudet faculty members Martina “MJ” Bienvenu and Kendra Smith of pressuring Gallaudet President T. Alan Hurwitz into violating the D.C. Human Rights act by illegally suspending McCaskill.

The lawsuit calls the suspension a form of retaliation against McCaskill for her decision to exercise her constitutional right to sign a petition on a pending civic matter.

A Gallaudet spokesperson told the Washington Post the university would have no comment on the lawsuit. Bienvenu and Smith couldn’t immediately be reached for comment. At the time of McCaskill’s suspension last October the two women told the Blade through an intermediary that they had no comment on the matter.

McCaskill’s lawsuit comes nine months after Gallaudet President Hurwitz reinstated McCaskill to her job in January. McCaskill states in her lawsuit that Hurwitz reinstated her to a slightly different position that represents a demotion.

“[O]n or about October 7-8, 2012, co-defendant, Bienvenu, and her same-sex partner, Smith, began making false and malicious statements that plaintiff was ‘anti-gay,’” the lawsuit says.

“[A]nd on those same dates, from the university campus, co-defendants, Bienvenu and Smith, falsely reported to PlanetDeafQueer.com, a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (‘LGBT’) publication, that plaintiff, Gallaudet University Chief Diversity Officer, was ‘anti-gay’ in an article entitled ‘Gallaudet’s Chief Diversity Officer Sign’s Anti-gay Petition,’” the lawsuit states.

It adds, “Co-defendant, Bienvenu, and her same-sex partner, Smith, further falsely stated, ‘[S]igning that petition is an act against many of Gallaudet’s constituents.’”

The lawsuit charges Gallaudet University and Bienvenu and Smith with one count of a D.C. Human Rights Act violation, two counts of defamation, two counts of intentional infliction of emotional distress, and one count of invasion of privacy.

The suit seeks $2.5 million in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages for the first count of a Human Rights Act violation and $1.5 million in compensatory and $1 million in punitive damages for each of the remaining counts. The total amount of damages sought by the lawsuit comes to $16 million.

The decision to suspend McCaskill came at a time when LGBT students at the school raised concerns about the appropriateness of McCaskill appearing to side with anti-gay groups that were pushing the ballot referendum while she served as chief diversity officer, a position thought to be a manifestation of the school’s support for equality for everyone, including gay people.

“The plaintiff explained that her signature on the petition solely represented her desire to have the same-sex marriage issue vetted through public discourse so that Maryland voters could become more understanding, informed, and enlightened about the issue once they entered the polls,” the lawsuit says.

“Plaintiff further explained that it was not an ‘anti-gay’ petition and plaintiff’s signature thereupon did not express an opinion on same-sex marriage one way or another,” it says.

According to the lawsuit, Bienvenu acted in a hostile way toward McCaskill after the two met last October at Bienvenu’s request to discuss revelations that McCaskill signed the marriage petition.

“…Co-defendant Bienvenu responded in a very animated manner with her sign-voice elevated, exclaiming, ‘I am really disgusted with you!” the lawsuit says. “She asked rhetorically, ‘Are you still a member of that church?’ and then criticized plaintiff’s Christian faith and belittled her religious beliefs,” the lawsuit says.

The Gallaudet website identifies Bienvenu as a professor of American Sign Language and Deaf Studies. It says she received a doctorate degree in linguistics in 2003 and served as co-chair of the Deaf Lesbians Festival from 2000 to 2004.

The website identifies Smith as chairperson of the Gallaudet Department of Counseling. She has a doctorate in Interdisciplinary Studies with a specialization in Counseling Education and Supervision. Among the areas she specializes in is “gay/lesbian/bisexual identity development and issues in counseling,” the website says.

03
Oct
2013

Year in review: Gallaudet suspends administrator for signing marriage petition

Angela McCaskill, Wyndal Gordon, Maryland marriage petition, same sex marriage, gay marriage, Gallaudet University, Washington Blade, gay news

Angela McCaskill (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The suspension of a senior Gallaudet University administrator who signed the petition that prompted a referendum on Maryland’s same-sex marriage law sparked outrage a little more than a month before Election Day.

Gallaudet University President T. Alan Hurwitz on Oct. 10 announced he had placed Dr. Angela McCaskill, who is the D.C. school’s chief diversity officer, on paid administrative leave after two lesbian faculty members filed a complaint after they discovered she signed the petition. McCaskill, who has been in her current position since Jan. 2011, identified the women as Martina “MJ” Bienvenu and Kendra Smith during an Oct. 17 press conference in Annapolis.

“I was shocked, hurt, insulted,” she said through an interpreter, stressing Hurwitz had sought to punish her for her decision to sign the same-sex marriage referendum petition as a private citizen. “They have attempted to intimidate me and tarnish my reputation.”

Same-sex marriage opponents immediately sought to highlight McCaskill’s suspension as an example of the consequences those who oppose nuptials for gays and lesbians could face if voters upheld the law that Gov. Martin O’Malley signed in March — the Maryland Marriage Alliance launched an ad that featured McCaskill. Marylanders for Marriage Equality, which backed the same-sex marriage law, and the governor also criticized her suspension.

Clergy on both sides of the issue spoke out against the university’s decision to place McCaskill on administrative leave.

“It is unacceptable for Dr. McCaskill to be professionally sanctioned for merely exercising her right as a citizen in our democracy,” Revs. Donté Hickman of Southern Baptist Church in Baltimore and Delman Coates of Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Prince George’s County, who both endorsed the same-sex marriage law, said in a joint statement that announced they were to hold weekly protests outside Gallaudet to urge administrators to reinstate McCaskill. “Our advocacy for marriage equality is about protecting the rights of all people, gays and lesbians, as well as those who may have a traditional view of marriage.”

27
Dec
2012