University of Illinois to review case of fired Catholic professor

Not a moment too soon, either.  Professor Kenneth Howell taught religion at the University of Illinois for several years, specifically Catholicism, and well enough to earn plaudits from his students for excellence in 2008 and 2009.  When a student asked Howell in class whether he believed the Catholic teaching that homosexual sex was immoral, Howell said he did.  The university then fired him for engaging in “hate speech,” but an outcry over the case has them reconsidering in terms of Howell’ academic freedom:

A faculty group at the University of Illinois‘ flagship campus will review the decision to fire an adjunct religion professor for saying he agreed with Catholic doctrine on homosexuality.

Urbana– Champaign campus Chancellor Robert Easter said Monday he hopes to have a decision on the firing of Kenneth Howell from the Faculty Senate’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure by the time fall classes start. The review is to determine whether Howell’s academic freedom was violated.

“We want to be able to reassure ourselves there was no infringement on academic freedom here,” new university President Michael Hogan told members of the Faculty Senate on Monday. “This is a very, very important, not to mention a touchy and sensitive, issue. Did this cross the line somehow?”

Only if one believes in academic freedom, free speech, and freedom of religion.  Otherwise, what’s the big deal, right?  The AP reported the details of the case over the weekend:

Howell, who taught Introduction to Catholicism and Modern Catholic Thought, says he was fired at the end of the spring semester after sending an e-mail explaining some Catholic beliefs to his students preparing for an exam.

“Natural Moral Law says that Morality must be a response to REALITY,” he wrote in the e-mail. “In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same.”

An unidentified student sent an e-mail to religion department head Robert McKim on May 13, calling Howell’s e-mail “hate speech.” The student claimed to be a friend of the offended student. The writer said in the e-mail that his friend wanted to remain anonymous.

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

Howell said he was teaching his students about the Catholic understanding of natural moral law.

“My responsibility on teaching a class on Catholicism is to teach what the Catholic Church teaches,” Howell said in an interview with The News-Gazette in Champaign. “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.”

Maybe Illinois ought to investigate the quality of its education when we hear this kind of stupidity from its students.  The tenets of Catholicism and mainstream Christianity are precisely that homosexual acts violate the natural law and order created by God, which is why they’re prohibited in doctrine.  It’s akin to saying that it’s one thing to teach math, but multiplication crosses the line.  Apparently, this student doesn’t pay much attention in class.

If the university has classes on religion — as most do — then they can’t possibly base a termination on an explanation of the tenets of the religion in question.  It’s absurd on its face, even apart from the implications on speech and academic freedom.  The explanation by Howell covers the argument from the Catholic perspective, which is what Howell is supposed to be teaching, as well as most mainline Christian denominations.

The issue of academic freedom is obvious, but perhaps less so is the damage to free speech and religious observance this case creates.  So-called “hate speech” laws can easily be bent to the purpose of silencing religious expression and other speech not in favor by the administration of a university.  In this case, the state-run school has no business silencing Howell’s expression of religious belief (which hardly amounted to “hate speech” anyway).  It also implicates government in an effort to coerce silence from dissenters on a widely-debated point of public policy.  Both violate the letter and spirit of the First Amendment.

The University of Illinois faculty deliberating on this issue had better consider exactly how this will impact them when popular opinion trumps their own academic freedom and right to speech when they dissent from the popular view on campus.  In fact, that’s exactly why academic freedom has been a cherished concept in American universities and colleges, and exactly why speech codes are anathema to real learning and discourse.