Ill. Prof. Who Taught Catholic Anti-Gay Doctrine to Be Reinstated

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Jul 30, 2010

A university professor whose employment was not renewed following a complaint alleging homophobia will now be reinstated to his position, reported Catholic News Agency on July 29.

Kenneth Howell, a non-tenured adjunct professor at the University of Illinois in Champaign, was let go after teaching his students that, according to the Catholic conception of "Natural Moral Law," acts of sexual intimacy between consenting adults of the same gender are wrong.

Catholic news sites, including the Catholic News Agency, reported the firing of Kenneth Howell as a matter of suppression of free speech. However, the student who complained about the course material made a similar argument, saying that, "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 complaint was made by a student who was not in Dr. Howell's class. Rather, the complaining student told department head Robert McKim that he was writing on behalf of a friend who was in the class. The complaint followed an email that Howell sent to his students in which he discussed "natural moral law" and homosexuality.

"Natural Moral Law says that Morality must be a response to REALITY," wrote Dr, Howell, according to a July 9 article in local newspaper the News-Gazette. "In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same."

Catholic teaching holds that gays and lesbians do not "choose" their sexual desires, and that those desires in and of themselves are not sinful. It is the expression of such desires, however, that the church has branded "inherently evil." One basis for the church's views on homosexuality comes from the Catholic conception of "natural law," greatly influenced by the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. Those who cite natural law seek to bolster arguments regarding the legislation of human morality and human conduct by claiming that the order of nature itself outlines moral laws that are universal.

According to Catholic notions of natural law, gays are "sexually disordered" because they do not, of their own inclination, seek the sexual company of members of the opposite sex. Sexual congress between individuals of differing genders is viewed, by those who argue from a viewpoint of natural law, as a matter of complementarity. That argument also rests on the assumption that the primary function of human sexuality is procreation.

In his course Introduction to Catholicism, Howell had explained the concept of natural moral law to students. His approach, news sources said, included drawing on the idea of natural law to examine contemporary social issues.

In the email that led to the complaint, Howell explained in a letter sent to friends after his firing, "I tried 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."

Howell claimed that his firing constituted a violation of his right to free speech, and noted that as an instructor in Catholicism, it was his responsibility to teach his students about the views held by that faith, however socially unpopular those views might be. "My responsibility on teaching a class on Catholicism is to teach what the Catholic Church teaches," Howell wrote in his letter. "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."

"Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing," the email sent by a student to McKim read. "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's case was taken up by conservative Christian legal group the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), which describes itself as "a legal alliance defending the right to hear and speak the Truth through strategy, training, funding, and litigation."

"A university cannot censor professors' speech--including classroom speech related to the topic of the class--merely because some students find that speech 'offensive,' " the News-Gazette quoted ADF lawyer David French. "Professors have the freedom to challenge students and to educate them by exposing them to different views."

Because of the nature of the employment agreement between adjunct professors and the university, no guarantee of employment from one semester to the next was offered, according to the university's associate chancellor for public affairs, Robin Kaler. The university has now determined that Howell will be reinstated as an instructor on similar employment terms to those under which he was employed before.

According to the CNA report, the university's Office of University Counsel informed Howell's legal representation that he would be offered his job teaching "Introduction to Catholicism" once again. The position would be "a visiting instructional appointment at the University of Illinois, for the fall 2010 semester," the letter stipulated.

"We greatly appreciate the university's move to put Professor Howell back in the classroom," French said, "but we will be watching carefully to make sure that his academic freedom is protected throughout the university's ongoing process."

The parties in another, similar case that the ADF had taken on settled recently before the suit filed by the ADF came to trial. A California college professor who was fired after being accused of homophobic remarks in the classroom has received a settlement of $100,000 from her former employer--but was not reinstated.

Next: Sticking to the Point: The Limits of Speech in the Classroom


  • , 2010-07-31 05:04:13

    Giving an accurate account of the Catholic churches view on homosexuality in an objective way is not hate speech. However, claiming that homosexuals are a greater threat to humanity than global warming, as the Pope did recently, is hate speech.

  • , 2010-08-01 03:35:30

    If you don’t approve off homosexuality, then some homosexuals accuse you of hate speech. This is a smear tactic used to silence you or get you fired.I love homosexuals. They are my brothers and sisters. But respect my right to free speech!

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