The University of Illinois has fired an adjunct professor who taught courses on Catholicism after a student accused the instructor of engaging in hate speech by saying he agrees with the church’s teaching that homosexual sex is immoral.
The professor, Ken Howell of Champaign, said his firing violates his academic freedom. He also lost his job at an on-campus Catholic center.
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.”
David Letterman used to do a joke in which he said that travelers to New York City could have fun by grabbing the Bible out of their hotel room drawer, looking out the window, and circling the Ten Commandments as they saw them being broken.
Here, it’s almost the same thing, but with the Constitution and Bill of Rights. The University of Illinois, after all, is a state school.
First, and appropriately so, the university’s decision to fire Professor Howell violated his freedom of speech as preserved by the First Amendment. And because the restrictions on Howell’s freedom of speech were presumably applied to him and not others because of his religion, his rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment were violated as well. And no, there is no Establishment Clause defense — Howell was not attempting to force an official religion on kids through his position at a state school; he was merely explaining his take, as a Catholic and a professor who taught “Introduction to Catholicism” and “Modern Catholic Thought,” on a newsworthy and controversial issue dominating recent weeks, months and years.
Second, when the university agreed to take disciplinary action based on an anonymous report submitted by a friend of the reporting student, the school violated Ken Howell’s right to confront his accuser, preserved by the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment. Okay, so that one’s a little bit of a stretch–Sixth Amendment issues of that sort arise during criminal trials–but the right to confront an accuser is also enshrined in the Due Process requirements under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.
Third, when the university fired him without any sort of disciplinary hearing, they violated his rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. And because First Amendment rights are considered fundamental rights and religion is considered a suspect classification–along with race, national origin and alienage–the decision by the university to fire Ken Howell must be evaluated under the strict scrutiny standard, which means that his termination must be considered necessary to achieve a compelling government interest. That’s a tough standard for the school to overcome.
Somehow, however, I’m not certain that this story will make Letterman’s “Top Ten” list tonight, or any other night.