University of Illinois administrators call for review of professor's dismissal

Administrators at the University of Illinois are asking a faculty committee to review the case of a professor who was fired after a student complained that his explanation of the Catholic teaching on homosexuality was “hate speech.”

Chancellor Robert Easter has asked the University of Illinois' Senate Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure to determine whether the university violated the academic freedom and right to free speech  of adjunct professor Dr. Kenneth Howell.

Howell, who has taught in the university's Department of Religion since 2001, was recently fired for explaining in a class on Catholicism that the Church believes that homosexual behavior violates natural moral law. 

University President Michael Hogan addressed faculty senators on Monday, after receiving 100 e-mails about Howell's case, reported The News-Gazette.

"We want to be able to reassure ourselves there was no infringement on academic freedom here," Hogan said. "This is a very, very important, not to mention a touchy and sensitive, issue. Did this cross the line somehow?"

Easter said he would like to have a ruling from the committee by the beginning of the fall semester, which starts on August 23.

"We need to resolve this within a reasonable time frame," he said.

According to The News-Gazette, Prof. Jeff Dawson, outgoing chair of the committee, will meet on Tuesday to discuss a timeline for the situation with Prof. Matt Finkin, who is scheduled to take over as chair on August 16.

Finkin said the case will be placed on the agenda for the committee's next meeting. The date for the meeting is uncertain, since many faculty members are currently out of town.

Howell's firing was brought on by a complaint from a student who charged that an e-mail from the professor to those taking his Introduction to Catholicism class was “hate speech.” Consequently, Howell was told at the end of the spring semester that he would no longer be allowed to teach for the University of Illinois because he had “violate(d) university standards of inclusivity.”

The complaint was sent to Dr. Robert McKim, head of the religion department, by a student who was not in the class on Catholicism but said he was writing on behalf of a friend in the class and wished to remain anonymous.

“Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing,” the e-mail said. “Declaring that homosexual acts violate the natural laws of man is another.”

The student also argued that “this is a public university and should thus have no religious affiliation.”

Howell has said that he was simply presenting Catholic moral teaching on homosexuality, which is based on natural moral law. He said that he made it clear that his students were not required to agree with Catholic teaching to succeed in his class.

Professor Nicholas Burbules, professor of educational policy studies at the university and a member of the Senate Council, said that the case is not "just about one e-mail or the issue of homosexuality," reported The News-Gazette.

"My understanding is this line has been crossed a long time ago, and repeatedly,” Burbules said.

He added that "a religious studies program is not a seminary. There's a difference between teaching about religion and teaching religion."

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Robin Kaler, associate chancellor for public affairs, stated that the university is "absolutely committed to teaching the theory of Catholicism, but it's up to the department as to who teaches a class."

The Alliance Defense Fund responded to the situation by sending a letter to the University of Illinois  calling for Howell to be immediately reinstated.

Travis Barham, litigation counsel for ADF, asserted that what is at stake is the freedom of speech. “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.'”

If the university does not respond to the letter by July 16, the legal fund said it will advise Howell to file a lawsuit.

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