The University of Illinois has fired an adjunct professor for teaching in a class on Catholicism that homosexual acts violate natural moral law.
Dr. Kenneth Howell was informed that he could no longer teach in the university's department of religion. The decision came after a student complained that Howell's statements were “hate speech.”
In response to his firing, Howell wrote a letter to friends explaining the events surrounding his dismissal.
Howell said in the letter, which was obtained by CNA, that he first came to teach at the St. John's Catholic Newman Center in 1998. At the time, courses on the Catholic faith were taught through the Newman Center, he explained, but in 2000, an agreement was made with the University of Illinois' department of religion, and he became an adjunct professor in the department and taught classes on Catholicism.
“Since the Fall of 2001, I have been regularly teaching two courses in the department of religion,” Howell explained. One of the classes, “Introduction to Catholicism,” includes an explanation of Natural Moral Law as affirmed by the Church as well as an application of Natural Law Theory to a disputed social issue.
“Most of those semesters, my chosen topic was the moral status of homosexual acts,” he explained.
Howell said he taught the Catholic Church's position on homosexuality. He summed it up by saying, “A homosexual orientation is not morally wrong just as no moral guilt can be assigned to any inclination that a person has. However, based on natural moral law, the Church believes that homosexual acts are contrary to human nature and therefore morally wrong.”
To show how homosexual behavior would be considered under competing moral systems, Howell sent an e-mail to the students contrasting utilitarianism with natural moral law. “I tried to show them that under utilitarianism, homosexual acts would not be considered immoral whereas under natural moral law they would,” Howell said. “This is because natural moral law, unlike utilitarianism, judges morality on the basis of the acts themselves.”
A complaint about Howell's statement was sent in a May 13 e-mail to Robert McKim, head of the religion department. The e-mail was sent by a student who was not in Howell's class, but said he was writing on behalf of a friend who was in the class and wished to remain anonymous. The e-mail complained about Howell's statements on homosexuality, calling them “hate speech.”
"Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing," said the e-mail, according to The News-Gazette. "Declaring that homosexual acts violate the natural laws of man is another. 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."
Howell said that at the end of the semester, he was called into Robert McKim's office and told that he would no longer be permitted to teach for the department. Howell objected that to dismiss him for teaching the Catholic position in a class on Catholicism was a violation of academic freedom and first amendment rights. “This made no difference,” he said. “After that conversation and a couple of emails, Professor McKim insisted that this decision to dismiss me stood firm.”
According to the local paper The News-Gazette, Howell said he has had students disagree with him in the past, but never in such a manner.
"My responsibility on teaching a class on Catholicism is to teach what the Catholic Church teaches," he said. "I have always made it very, very clear to my students they are never required to believe what I'm teaching and they'll never be judged on that."
The News-Gazette reported that Howell also said he was open with students about his own beliefs as a practicing Catholic. "It's not a violation of academic freedom to advocate a position, if one does it as an appeal on rational grounds and it's pertinent to the subject," he said.
Later, Howell said, Msgr. Gregory Ketcham, the current Director of the St. John’s Catholic Newman Center, informed him that the Center would not be able to continue employing him since there was no longer any teaching for him to do.
“I suggested that we work together to have courses on Catholicism taught at the Newman Center that could be accredited by a Catholic university and that could be transferred into the University of Illinois for credit,” Howell said. “In this way, the students whom we had been called to serve could continue to be instructed in the Catholic Faith.”
However, Monsignor Ketcham said that he had no interest in such a plan, according to Howell.
Howell is currently working with the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) to seek legal redress.
David French, senior counsel for the ADF said in a written statement, "A university cannot censor professors' speech – including classroom speech related to the topic of the class – merely because some students find that speech 'offensive.' Professors have the freedom to challenge students and to educate them by exposing them to different views. The Alliance Defense Fund is working with Professor Howell because the defense of academic freedom is essential on the university campus."