University Reinstates Professor Terminated for Teaching Catholic Doctrine on Homosexuality

August 1, 2010 - 5:42 PM
A religious liberties group called the decision 'a huge win for academic freedom.'

(Photo Courtesy of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

(CNSNews.com) – A professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), who was purportedly accused of “hate speech” and relieved of his teaching duties for teaching Catholic doctrine on homosexuality in his introductory class on Catholicism, will be allowed to teach the class again this fall.
 
In a letter last week, University of Illlinois Deputy Counsel Steven Veazie told the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) that the university will be contacting Dr. Kenneth Howell to offer him the opportunity to teach Religion 127, Introduction to Catholicism, as a visiting instructor for the fall semester.
 
“The University has corrected, for the time being, its academic freedom violation by not just suspending the decision to terminate him, but by bringing him back to the classroom,” ADF senior counsel David French told CNSNews.com. “It’s a huge win for academic freedom.”
 
As CNSNews.com has reported, Howell, a highly regarded professor, said he was told by the head of the Religion department that he had lost his job over complaints about an explanation of the Catholic Church’s teaching on homosexuality that Howell sent in an e-mail to his students. The professor told his students that homosexuality violated Natural Moral Law.

The university claimed that Howell was not “fired,” but maintained that he was just not assigned to teach anymore classes. However, ADF attorneys intervened, saying the university had violated Howell’s rights under the First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment, and demanded his immediate reinstatement. 
 
“Like any instructor for the university, Dr. Howell will be expected to provide instruction in a manner that adheres to and does not violate constitutional principles precluding the ‘establishment of religion’ in a public university context,” Veazie said in the letter to the ADF.
 
“In addition, the University of Illinois is committed to upholding principles of academic freedom and the requirements of the First Amendment,” the university wrote, adding a disclaimer -- “Nothing in this letter is intended to express or imply that such principles have been violated by previous events.” 
 
According to the university, the offer of an appointment will not affect the process or outcome of a review of Howell’s claims of termination and infringement on his academic freedom by the university Faculty-Senate Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure.
 
The Alliance Defense Fund had expressed skepticism over the review process in a letter to the university, pointing out that an associate dean of the university’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Ann Mester, had purportedly sent an e-mail to the head of the religion department which said "the e-mails sent by Dr. Howell violate university standards of inclusivity, which would then entitle us to have him discontinue his teaching arrangement with us."

“You’ve got to love the irony of, ‘We’re going to exclude without due process for the sake of inclusivity,’” French told CNSNews.com.

The Alliance Defense Fund will be watching the committee proceedings very closely, and participating in them to the extent possible, to ensure Dr. Howell’s academic freedom continues to be protected, French said. The original deadline for committee findings was August 23, but French is unsure if that deadline was still applicable now that Dr. Howell will be back in the classroom.

French told CNSNews.com that he has not had the chance to speak directly with Dr. Howell about whether  he will accept the teaching position, but said that he fully expects to see Howell back in the classroom in the fall -- and having a long and productive career with the University.

University Cuts Ties With Catholic Diocese
 
The professor’s reinstatement, however, apparently comes at a cost – the university is ending its decades-long relationship with the Catholic diocese of Peoria, Ill.
 
Until last week, the Diocese of Peoria, through the St. John’s Catholic Newman Center on campus, paid the salaries of Howell and other professors teaching for-credit courses on Catholicism at the university. On the recommendation of a university Faculty Senate committee, that relationship has now ended.
 
“The university values its relationship with the Newman Center and plans to continue offering courses in Catholic studies,” the university said in a news release.
 
But Veazie’s letter to the Alliance Defense Fund made clear that Howell’s salary this fall would be paid by the University of Illinois.
 
In a statement released Friday, Peoria Diocesan Chancellor Patricia M. Gibson said she was “very pleased” with Howell’s return to the classroom, and that the diocese had “no objection” to ending its relationship with the University on paying professors’ salaries.
 
French, meanwhile, told CNSNews.com that he had no doubt hostile sentiments existed on campus about the relationship between the university and the Newman Center, but said the relationship had nothing to do with Howell’s firing.
 
According to French, the agreement between the university and Newman Center stated that Professor Howell, when it came to his duties as a professor, was acting under the control of the University and according to the standard procedures of the University.

“When the public pressures got onto the university, there are individuals at the university who tried to divert attention by saying, ‘the real issue isn’t Dr. Howell, it’s this relationship that the university has with the Newman Center whereby they pay for his salary,’” French told CNSNews.com.

“That has always been a separate issue entirely from whether Dr. Howell’s academic freedom was violated,” said French.

Bill Donohue, president of The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, praised the university.

“The University of Illinois made the right decision to reverse the earlier ruling that stripped Ken Howell of his adjunct position,” Donahue said. “Regarding the termination of the arrangement with the Diocese of Peoria, a plausible case can be made that it was time to reassess this relationship. But this issue is not entirely over.”

The Newman Center, meanwhile, plans to meet with Howell this week to determine an ongoing role for him at the center which will complement his teaching at the University.