When Kenneth Howell was fired in early July from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UI) for teaching the Catholic position on homosexuality and marriage in the classroom, he didn’t back down from the fight to get his job back. 

His fortitude and forthrightness seem to have paid off. 

In late July, UI announced it was reinstating Howell for the fall semester, though it admitted no wrongdoing. 

An adjunct professor at UI since 2001, Howell sent an email this spring to his students as part of a take-home final exam. He referred to a lecture he’d given the day before distinguishing between same-sex attraction and homosexual acts, and noted that the Church recognized such acts as contrary to natural law. An unidentified student in his class sent Howell’s email to another student, who then forwarded it to the UI administration, complaining that Howell was “limiting the marketplace of ideas and acting out of accord with this institution’s mission and principles.” 

News of Howell’s firing was met with immediate and overwhelming public reaction — especially among many of his former students, sympathetic colleagues and Catholic and Christian civil-rights organizations around the country. 

Faithful fight 

Howell has had plenty of practice in overcoming obstacles. In 1995, he survived an attack by an unknown gunman. Then a Presbyterian minister and visiting professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, he was encouraged in part by his surviving the attack to enter the Catholic Church in 1996 — with no job, few prospects and consternation in his family. 

As with these struggles, he found allies among fellow Christians to help him. Howell said that his former students and a larger group of Catholic and other Christian students at UI were largely responsible for the “firestorm” that broke with the news of his firing. 

“They started a website; they wrote letters to the new UI president; they began an online petition; and they were barraging the newspapers in the Chicago area,” he told OSV. “I did nothing — it was all the students.” 

Another ally in his struggle, he said, the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a legal alliance defending religious freedom, not only won his legal battle, but also the battle of public opinion. 

Teaching truth 

As a teacher, Howell sees the administration’s initial reaction to the complaint as an indictment of modern education. 

“Education in this country, especially at big research universities, lacks what I would call a well-formed intellect,” he said. “The students are not learning how to engage in reasoned debate, and I attribute that to the loss of the liberal arts — and particularly to the loss of rhetoric and logic.” 

More to the point, Howell said, those offended by his defense of Church teaching on homosexuality are not making proper intellectual distinctions. 

“People today are not thinking very clearly if they can’t make a distinction between respecting the person and disagreeing with the person’s behavior,” he said. “Obviously, a parent does that every day when he or she must correct a child. The parent loves the child, but what the child did was wrong. That simple common-sense distinction is lost on I’d say about half the university community here, which shows they’re being duped by a cultural attitude rather than thinking through the morality of the question.” 

At the same time, he said, the response among students in his class to Church teaching on this and other matters has been overwhelmingly positive. 

“The encouraging thing is that when students are presented with a reasoned defense of the Church’s position they find it not so incredible after all, and actually quite plausible,” he said. “They understand how such a teaching can be found in Scripture and based on natural law.” 

Undermining actions 

Jordan Lorence, senior counsel and senior vice president of the Office of Strategic Initiatives for the ADF, said that while Howell’s case is “one of the more public and extreme” examples of an academic institution infringing on an individual’s religious rights, he has seen plenty of less public cases in his 30 years of law. 

“I wish I could say this was an anomaly,” he said. “This case is increasingly becoming more the norm, where we see university faculty and their administrative staff increasingly hard left in their ideology and increasingly secular in their religious beliefs.” 

He said the ADF believes the school is acting in good faith in restoring Howell to his position. 

“But if there’s anything that seems fishy — if they try, for instance, to dismiss him after a semester or two, there’s a lot of people watching — not only the attorneys at the ADF but a lot of his former students, other alumni of UI and concerned Catholics in Illinois and around the nation,” he said. “I don’t think this is going to die down any time soon for Professor Howell.” 

Joseph O’Brien writes from Wisconsin.

Anti-Catholic Bias (sidebar)

One of Professor Kenneth Howell’s colleagues and a fellow Catholic, tenured University of Illinois professor Synthia Sydnor said that she’s hopeful Howell’s firing and rehiring will draw more attention to anti-Catholic bias in academia. 

An associate professor in the UI’s Department of Kinesiology & Community Health, Sydnor became Catholic in 1998. She came to know Howell through a reading group. 

“I think serious thinkers at UI are opening up and beginning to understand [that there is] a bias against the Catholic faith,” she said. “I hope that the university administration grows from this incident.” 

A teacher at UI for 22 years, Sydnor said that other UI professors — including “gay studies” professors — teach courses from a specific standpoint without being reprimanded by the administration. 

“The gay professors [at UI] make that view transparent and … clearly have a right to take a standpoint,” she said. “But Ken Howell couldn’t take a standpoint. He couldn’t say, ‘I’m a practicing Catholic and I believe this.’” 

In the past, Sydnor said that she has included discussion of Catholic teaching in her classroom, noting that in teaching about the validity of cultural relativism she and her students often address the topic of absolute truth. 

“I’ll say I don’t think there is relativity in certain things,” she said. “I always give the example of the sanctity of human life in class, and I’ve never gotten any complaints. I tell the class that I believe life begins at conception, and that can’t be relative.” 

One the other hand, Syndor said that she’s encountered an anti-Catholic bias among some UI faculty members. 

“People who are my friends would send me weird comics or tasteless gifts,” she said. “I received a boxing nun puppet, tasteless posters and books which try to refute the Catholic faith. I always throw the books away. I don’t think much about it, though — because it really is ingrained in the academic culture.”