In a letter sent Monday to the University of Illinois, the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) called for the immediate reinstatement of Dr. Kenneth Howell, a professor who was fired for explaining in a class on Catholicism that the Church teaches homosexual behavior violates natural law. If the university does not reply to the letter by July 16, the legal fund said it will advise the professor to file a lawsuit.
In his Introduction to Catholicism class this past spring, a class that he had taught regularly at the university, Dr. Howell covered the topic of homosexuality, teaching the Catholic Church's position on same-sex attractions and behavior. As part of this discussion, Dr. Howell sent an e-mail to his class contrasting how utilitarianism and natural law theory would each determine the morality of homosexual conduct.
A student complained that Dr. Howell's words were “hate speech” in an e-mail to the head of the department, Dr. Robert McKim. Howell was called into McKim's office at the end of the semester and told that he would no longer be allowed to teach for the University because his e-mail had “violate[d] university standards of inclusivity.”
Travis Barham, litigation staff counsel for the ADF Center for Academic Freedom, wrote a letter on July 12 to several officials at the University of Illinois, including the president, the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the head of the religion department.
“In relieving Dr. Howell of his teaching responsibilities, the University is firing him for teaching Catholic doctrine in a class about Catholic doctrine,” Barham said.
He noted that “the University's only reason for removing Dr. Howell is that other students, faculty, and staff disliked his speech.” However, he continued, the First Amendment “exists precisely to protect controversial ideas from being silenced” and “affords broad protection for a professor's speech in the classroom.”
In his letter, Barham noted that Dr. Howell has taught in the Department of Religion at the University of Illinois since 2001, and that he has consistently earned excellent marks on his student evaluations.
Throughout the semester, Barham underscored, Dr. Howell emphasized to his class that they did not need to agree with Catholic thought, but simply needed to understand and analyze it to succeed in the class.
In a legal analysis of the situation, Barham explained that “public university professors retain free speech and academic freedom rights in the classroom and on campus.”
Looking at legal precedent, Barham noted that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which has jurisdiction over Illinois, has stated that “the First Amendment protects the right of faculty members to engage in academic debates, pursuits, and inquiries.” Federal courts across the country have agreed with this statement, he said.
“These clearly established First Amendment principles easily encompass Dr. Howell's lectures and e-mail,” Barham stated. “In a class on Catholic thought, he explained Catholic teaching on sexual morality and answered students' questions and responded to their objections.”
“According to decades of Supreme Court precedent, the University simply cannot relieve Dr. Howell of his teaching post based on how third parties respond to his speech,” Barham said. “For decades, the Supreme Court has consistently held that university campuses are 'not enclaves immune from the sweep of the First Amendment.'”
Emphasizing the violation of the right to free speech and academic freedom, Barham called for the University to restore Dr. Howell to his previous teaching position.
“In light of these clear constitutional violations, we demand that you immediately reinstate Dr. Howell and restore to him the teaching responsibilities he has discharged so excellently for almost a decade,” Barham said in the letter. If the University does not respect Dr. Howell's First Amendment freedoms, ADF will advise the professor “to vindicate his constitutional rights in federal court.”