There is an interesting controversy at the University of Illinois where the university has fired adjunct professor Dr. Kenneth Howell for teaching why homosexual acts violate natural moral law under the tenets of the Catholic church. Howell taught courses on the Catholic faith at the St. John’s Catholic Newman Center. He was fired after a student labeled his statements “hate speech.”
In 2000, the University of Illinois’ Department of Religion incorporated Newman courses and Howell (who taught at Newman since 1998) became an adjunct professor. One of his classes, “Introduction to Catholicism,” includes what Howell described as “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.” Homosexuality was one of the obvious subjects.
Here is how Howell described the statements that led to his firing. He reportedly summed up the position of the Church in the following way:
“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.”
He says that he sent an e-mail to students to try “to show them that under utilitarianism, homosexual acts would not be considered immoral whereas under natural moral law they would. This is because natural moral law, unlike utilitarianism, judges morality on the basis of the acts themselves.”
A complaint was filed by a student who was not enrolled in his class but insisted that he was writing on behalf of a student who wanted to remain anonymous.
The student objected that “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 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.”
The school fired Howell who objected on first amendment and academic freedom grounds.
He was also later informed by Msgr. Gregory Ketcham, the Director of the St. John’s Catholic Newman Center, that he was no longer needed at the Center.
It is a troubling case. Illinois should shoulder the burden in showing that academic freedom was not violated in this case. Frankly, I would be a bit concerned over incorporating classes from a religious center to begin with and I believe it is problematic to enlist religious organizations to teach courses on their faith for credit. Indeed, the student’s objection would seem as much to the course as to the professor. However, Illinois decided to offer a course on Catholic values. The question is whether the professor crossed the line between teaching the tenets and proselytizing for the faith. If the statements above were truly the cause for the action against the teacher, it would appear to violate the principles of academic freedom. We simply do not have enough information in the case.
The fact is that I have seen many university courses on feminism, race politics, and other subjects where the professors teach highly controversial views (which they are known to share). It is incumbent on Illinois to distinguish Newman (and his lectures) from those other professors to establish some objective basis for the termination. They may be able to do so, but the record so far is worrisome.