Church angles matter, in Prince George’s County

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The state of Maryland is bluer than blue, when it comes to politics, so it’s no surprise that supporters of same-sex marriage are expecting a rare victory at the ballot-box on Nov. 6. It will be a stunning upset if cultural conservatives carry the day on this hot-button issue in such a liberal state.

However, there is one twist in this story that simply cannot be ignored and that is the power of culturally conservative African-American Christians in this state, especially in highly symbolic Prince George’s County — one of America’s most influential regions, in terms of black political and social power. This is particularly true when it comes to the county’s many black Protestant megachurches. In these pews, it is perfectly normal to find legions of enthusiastic Barack Obama supporters who consider themselves political progressives, yet they also plan to vote against changing the definition of marriage.

This brings us to the interesting case of Angela McCaskill, the Gallaudet University administrator who was suspended from her job after a gay newspaper published the fact that she had signed a petition to hold a referendum on Maryland’s same-sex marriage law.

The story has generated a lot of press, especially now that opponents of same-sex marriage are citing her case as an example of what could happen in the future to traditional religious believers in the public square. Meanwhile, many supporters of same-sex marriage — especially African-American liberals — have spoken out in her defense, saying that she had the right to sign the petition and keep her job.

It also helps to know that Gallaudet is a private institution, not a state school. Thus, the university has the right, as a voluntary association, to make same-sex marriage one of the school’s defining doctrines, so to speak. Its leaders simply have to state this clearly and publicly, so that students, donors, faculty, etc., know this fact in advance.

Note to journalists covering this story: In other words, was the school’s opposition to traditional Christian teachings on this matter articulated to McCaskill and others as a condition of their employment? That would be a good question to ask. On the other side, the leaders of private conservative schools are required to articulate the doctrines that they intend to enforce, in lifestyle covenants, for those who voluntarily study, teach and work there.

So, is support for same-sex marriage part of a written-and-signed Gallaudet lifestyle and doctrinal covenant? Did McCaskill voluntarily sign away her free-speech rights on this issue? This question will come up in court, if this case ends up in court.

Anyway, The Baltimore Sun ran an update on this story the other day that, in my opinion, left a crucial fact out of the lede.

Read this and see what you think. What is missing, if one wants to understand the Price George’s County context?

The Gallaudet University diversity officer who was suspended from her job after signing a petition to put Maryland’s same-sex marriage law to referendum said she wants her post back and is owed compensation for the emotional toll caused by the firestorm.

“This has been a tremendously horrific time for myself and my family,” Angela McCaskill said at a news conference … outside the Maryland State House. “The university has allowed this issue to escalate out of control. They have attempted to intimidate me. They have tarnished my reputation.”

McCaskill, who is deaf and spoke via an interpreter, said she signed the petition because she is “pro-democracy.” She was joined by members of the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus — including some who voted in favor of the same-sex marriage measure and some who opposed it.

What is missing from the lede?

I think it is missing two crucial words — “at church.”

The Sun does get this fact into print in a background paragraph a few lines later, which is good. But anyone who knows Maryland politics knows that the church angle — the freedom to proclaim religious belief outside the pews — is the key to this whole story, at least for half of the people involved in it. Among African-Americans, the church angle is especially important.

Nearly 200,000 Marylanders signed the petition pushed by opponents of same-sex marriage, who hope to defeat the law at the ballot box Nov. 6. McCaskill said she signed it after listening to a sermon in her Prince George’s County church that focused on the importance of marriage. …

McCaskill, the first deaf black woman to receive a doctorate from Gallaudet, was suspended with pay last week from her post. At the time, the university president issued a statement saying he wanted to consider whether it was appropriate for an officer in charge of cultivating diversity to sign the petition. McCaskill said the university acted after a fellow faculty member lodged a complaint about her decision to sign.

So, how did The Washington Post handle this development in the story? Here’s that newspaper’s lede:

Gallaudet University’s embattled chief diversity officer said she wasn’t taking an anti-gay stance when she signed a petition advocating for Maryland’s same-sex marriage law to be put to a vote. Instead, Angela McCaskill says she was joining 200,000 others in standing up for the rights of voters to make decisions at the ballot box.

In other words, “ditto” on the church thing in the lede. Later on, the newspaper did add some additional background:

McCaskill, 54, was the first deaf African American woman to earn a PhD at Gallaudet, a university for the deaf and hard of hearing in the District. She has worked at Gallaudet for more than 24 years and was named top diversity official last year. McCaskill said she rearranged her budget to find money to open a resource center on campus for sexual minorities, hired an openly transgender employee and hosted many events centered around discussing LGBT issues.

This summer, McCaskill and her husband attended Reid Temple AME church and heard a sermon about “different types of marriage,” then signed the petition there, Gordon said. That petition was obtained and made public by the Washington Blade. A faculty member saw McCaskill’s name on the petition and confronted
her in early October. …

As the firestorm escalated, McCaskill was told that she should issue an apology — but refused.

Also, it’s interesting to note that she signed the petition at a politically progressive, mainline Protestant church, not in one of the county’s massive Pentecostal or evangelical churches. By the way, is she a member of that congregation? You see, this is one of those religious-liberty stories that cannot simply be described in terms of political left and right.

The bottom line: When you’re writing about Prince George’s County, the African-American church angle goes in the lede — period. Otherwise, the story is avoiding the key fact in the story.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Needless to say, the goal here is to discuss the journalism issues in these two stories, not McCaskill’s action or the contents of her statements — unless you want to discuss how her actions or statements have been cited in the press.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Miguel

    What are the duties of a diversity officer? Is she obligated to advocate for the legal rights of all University students? I also would like to know what the sermon at this ‘politically progressive church’ had to say about SSM. It says that she “McCaskill said she rearranged her budget to find money to open a resource center on campus for sexual minorities, hired an openly transgender employee and hosted many events centered around discussing LGBT issues.”
    Did the resource center she funded include any kind of legal help for LGBT students seeking to marry? Answers to questions like these would indicate whether her signing of the petition was likely to interfere with her job duties.

  • dalea

    The National Diversity Officers in Higher Education has a web site:

    http://www.nadohe.org/public-policy

    The statement of mission is:

    Public Policy
    ‘The Public Policy mission of NADOHE is to create an awareness of and advocate for diversity issues impacting the educational attainment, access, and success of diverse individuals and communities in higher education and to provide a national forum for the dissemination and open discussion of emerging state and federal policy issues that may have an adverse impact on diverse constituencies.’

    Gauladet is listed as a recent member of the organization. There is no mention of the McCaskill that I could find. The site sheds a little more light on the duties and obligations of diversity officers, but not enough to help in this case. I would find it helpful to know what other diversity officers think about this situation.

  • dalea

    Inside Higher Education has a thoughtful article on the subject which brings out a number of the questions raised here. And some we had not considered. The main issue seems to be that a diversity officer is held to a different standard than other administrators.:

    ‘At many colleges and universities, students and faculty members have a range of views on gay rights and gay marriage, and express them throughout the political process. But the issue is more complicated for administrators who have responsibility for promoting equal opportunity on campuses. In 2008, a human resources administrator at the University of Toledo was fired after she published a newspaper column arguing that gay people don’t need civil rights protection. The administrator, Crystal Dixon, sued the university, but a judge ruled that Toledo was within its rights in firing Dixon because of the nature of her position; her comments, the judge ruled, would impact her ability to do her job.

    That is the same argument McCaskill’s critics make, saying that because her job is to create a safe, inclusive environment for students of all races, ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations, her signature on the petition interferes with that goal. McCaskill, however, emphasized that she merely exercised her right to sign a petition and did not actively espouse a particular opinion.

    “Anyone who works at a university has the right to espouse any viewpoint, assuming that’s done in a respectful way,” said Benjamin Reese, president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education and the vice president for institutional equity at Duke University. “But I think all of us in senior roles at colleges and universities recognize that there is not a clear demarcation between our college and university service and our private life.”

    For diversity officers, Reese said, the line can be even fuzzier. Though he did not want to comment on McCaskill’s case without knowing the details, Reese did say that university administrators should recognize that often it is impossible to ever completely dissociate from their university role.’

    Read more: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/10/17/dispute-gallaudet-over-chief-diversity-officers-gay-marriage-stance#ixzz29h6mcpcj
    Inside Higher Ed

    We really need the block quote function back.

  • Mike

    What’s your basis for saying Reid Temple is politically progressive?

  • tmatt

    MIKE:

    The AME Zion denomination as a whole. Very mainline.

    DALEA:

    In legal terms, the expectations of other diversity officers is irrelevant for the point I am making. What matters is the conditions of her hiring. What did she sign? What was communicated to HER?

    Also, I think we can expect more reporting on how she did or did not carry out her duties, especially if there is any kind of legal action.

  • sari

    Missing is any explanation from legal experts on this issue, perhaps more important than where she heard a sermon or signed the petition.

    tmatt, occupational standards do matter, especially in academic institutions. Failure to adhere to those standards can damage a university’s reputation and influence students’ futures, both professionally and academically. That Gallaudet serves a very specific population makes questions of integrity even more important, not less.

  • tmatt

    SARI

    Who has said otherwise? At the same time, who has said that this woman has in any way violated the job standards that were communicated to her and that she signed at the time of her employment?

    Most of all, did the university legally inform her of any limitations on her rights as a citizen? Or is she being harassed by faculty for an expression of her political/religious beliefs while there are no other charges against her in terms of her job performance?

    As the post stressed, reporters should seek FACTS on whether Gallaudet, as a private school, clearly communicated to her that the school has doctrines that it intended to enforce on her, limiting her expressions of her own beliefs. Liberal schools (and conservative ones, too) CAN do that, but it must be made clear that these doctrinal standards exist.

  • sari

    tmatt,
    The articles should have included some input from legal scholars knowledgeable on the subject. Expectations may be implicit due to the nature of the job. If she belongs to a professional organization, one which defines standards to which its members are expected to adhere, then she would have been aware of the potential fallout of making a public declaration. We don’t know, because the article provided no information on the legal aspects of the firing or the potential lawsuit. Whether or not Gallaudet provides its employees with explicit standards of conduct may be irrelevant in this particular case.

    As to the import of the setting and sermon, they may have inspired her to act at one moment in time, but, as has been noted here and elsewhere, the African American community displays an entrenched cultural bias against same-sex relations. How do we know that it derives from the Bible? Do indigenous African belief systems prescribe or proscribe same sex relationships? Could a bias have been retained and its rationale reworked as African Americans adopted the religion of their slavemasters? I’d like to see a more thorough analysis of the subject.

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