(CNSNews.com) – The Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal group, has given the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign until the end of Friday to re-instate a professor who was relieved of his teaching duties following complaints he engaged in “hate speech” by teaching students about Catholic teaching on homosexuality in a course about Catholicism.
In a letter to University officials, ADF attorneys say that Dr. Kenneth Howell lost his position simply for teaching the facts about a Catholic moral teaching, and that University officials have until July 16 to respond to demands that the university immediately reinstate Howell to his teaching position, or face court action.
While teaching the course “Introduction to Catholicism” at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, they say, Howell expressed Catholic Church teaching on homosexuality in an e-mail to his students, prompting a student complaint to the University that read in part, “allowing this hate speech at a public university is entirely unacceptable.”
“We are gravely disappointed that the University would succumb to such a ‘heckler’s veto,’ jettison principles of academic freedom, and violate Dr. Howell’s First Amendment freedoms. And we insist that he be reinstated to his teaching position immediately,” the letter said.
“We are seriously going to consider a lawsuit if they do not back down from this. It was clear cut censorship of a professor simply for expressing a politically incorrect view in the classroom on the subject that the class was about,” Jordan Lawrence, the Alliance Defense Fund attorney representing Howell, told CNSNews.com.
Howell’s May 4 e-mail, obtained and published by the Champaign News-Gazette, discussed the differences between utilitarianism and Natural Moral Law in judging the morality of homosexuality.
Howell explained to his students that Natural Moral Law, “says that Morality must be a response to REALITY. In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same. How do we know this? By looking at REALITY. Men and women are complementary in their anatomy, physiology, and psychology. Men and women are not interchangeable. So, a moral sexual act has to be between persons that are fitted for that act.”
Howell further states in the e-mail: “Natural Moral Theory says that if we are to have healthy sexual lives, we must return to a connection between procreation and sex. Why? Because that is what is REAL. It is based on human sexual anatomy and physiology. Human sexuality is inherently unitive and procreative. If we encourage sexual relations that violate this basic meaning, we will end up denying something essential about our humanity, about our feminine and masculine nature.”
In the email, Howell described both the utitlitarian perspective and the natural law perspective and specifically told the students he was not asking them to take a position on the morality of homosexual behavior. "All I ask as your teacher is that you approach these questions as a thinking adult," he wrote. "That implies questioning what you have heard around you. Unless you have done extensive research into homosexuality and are cognizant of the history of moral thought, you are not ready to make judgments about moral truth in this matter. All I encourage is to make informed decisions."
Howell’s dismissal came after an e-mail from an unnamed student was sent to the head of the Department of Religion at the university, complaining that Howell “allowed little room for any opposition to Catholic dogma.”
“Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing. Declaring that homosexual acts violate the natural laws of man is another,” the student e-mail said. “The courses at this institution should be geared to contribute to the public discourse and promote independent thought; not limit one's worldview and ostracize people of a certain sexual orientation.”
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the offical Roman Catholic teachings, homosexual acts “are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.”
In a 1986 letter, “On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons,” then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, wrote: “Homosexual activity is not a complementary union, able to transmit life; and so it thwarts the call to a life of that form of self-giving which the Gospel says is the essence of Christian living.”
Ironically, the U of I Department of Religion had congratulated Howell in the previous school semester for his “excellent teaching” in the Introduction to Catholicism course, as ranked by students in the Fall of 2009.
But Howell was informed in late May of this year by Dr. Robert McKim, head of the religion department, that he would no longer be able to teach classes at the University.
“This kind of heavy handed authoritarian response to an opinion that some anonymous person found objectionable is simply not the way classrooms should function at universities in the United States,” Lorence told CNSNews.com
According to Lorence, the university officials who dismissed Howell have been vague as to the exact cause of his dismissal. He said no mention of work performance or inaccuracies in presenting material to students were when Dr. Howell was dismissed. Lorence told CNSNews.com that the complaints about “hate speech” seem to be the direct cause of the dismissal.
Dr. Michael Hogan, who started his tenure as president of the University of Illinois in May of this year, has responded to individuals concerned about Dr. Howell’s dismissal via an open e-mail letter:
“Let me begin by thanking you for expressing your concerns,” the letter states. “Academic freedom is at the core of our teaching and research missions. It’s vital to our ability to explore new ideas, educate our students, and promote the civil and free exchange of alternative viewpoints in a democracy.
“I learned of this action on the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) campus late last week and immediately asked Chancellor Robert Easter, who oversees the campus, to provide me with a briefing on the matter. I want to assure you that the University administration shares my commitment to the principles of academic freedom. At the same time, we do believe it's important to fully investigate all of the details related to this situation. As I'm sure you're aware, it is sometimes the case that public reports may convey only part of the story. I think it important to reserve judgment until I have all of the facts and I hope you'll agree.
“We have asked the UIUC Senate’s standing Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure to immediately review this action. This is the mechanism on the campus through which these matters should be vetted. We expect this review to be completed very soon. By using our channels of shared governance and review, we are in the best position to make informed decisions that afford a fair process for all.”
The Alliance Defense Fund letter, meanwhile, says the First Amendment protects faculty speech in the classroom, and lists several federal court precedents protecting faculty speech. The letter also points out that “decades of Supreme Court precedent” prohibit the University from firing Dr. Howell simply because his speech was controversial.
The ADF letter reiterates several times that Howell was fired for teaching Catholic doctrine in a class about Catholic doctrine, and says that, “the University’s only reason for removing Dr. Howell is that other students, faculty, and staff disliked his speech.”
According to the University of Illinois Academic Staff Handbook: “Academic freedom is essential to the functioning of a university. It applies to its teaching, research, and public service and involves both faculty and students.”
The handbook goes on to say, “Faculty members are expected to instruct their assigned courses in a manner consistent with the scheduled time, course content, and course credit as approved by the faculty. Within these constraints, they are entitled to freedom in the classroom in developing and discussing according to their areas of competence the subjects that they are assigned.”
A decision by the university Senate’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure may be forthcoming.