Fired Anti-Gay Biology Prof Wins Settlement--But Not Reinstatement

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday July 29, 2010

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 has not been reinstated.

June Sheldon lost her job as a professor at San Jose City College in early 2008, after an offended student level charges of homophobic remarks at her. A July 22 article at local newspaper Mercury News reported that the case never reached trial because both sides reached a settlement. One effect of that outcome is that no legal precedent has been set by the case.

Sheldon was represented by the Alliance Defense Fund, which is comprised of conservative Christian attorneys, and also by the Pacific Justice Institute. "The actions of San Jose City College in firing professor Sheldon were both outrageous and illegal," said the PJI's Brad Dacus. "This case is an alarming, all-too-real illustration of the insidious efforts under way on many college campuses to stifle alternative viewpoints."

"Professors shouldn't be fired simply for doing their jobs as educators," said ADF lawyer David J. Hacker. "Professionally addressing both sides of an academic issue according to the class curriculum is not grounds for dismissal; it's what a professor is supposed to do."

But some students rating Sheldon at indicated that Sheldon's lectures tended to incorporate personal anecdotes and opinions, the article said. "She has her agenda to push on us," one student claimed. while another posted the criticism that, "She wanders from coursework with personal stories." Others offered supportive remarks, while still referring to the "Fun... stories" that she would relate during class.

In the case of the episode in question, which transpired June 21, 2007, accounts vary. Sheldon says that she offered a scientific theory as to the causes of human homosexuality, citing both genetics and studies that suggest in utero hormone levels can affect a person's eventual sexual orientation before birth. The offended student, however, claims that Sheldon asserted that the in utero hormone levels only produced gay men, with lesbians being the result when "women just get tired of relationships with men." According to the student, Sheldon also made the claim that the Middle East had no gay population because of how well women there are treated by their spouses. The student also says that Sheldon suggested that men could avoid having gay sons by being sure to pamper their pregnant wives.

"A settlement doesn't establish any law" regarding First Amendment rights and free speech, according to Hank Greely, a professor of law at Yale.

"If she did have a First Amendment right" that was trampled by her firing, "it would have taken a trial to find out," affirmed Stanford's Pam Karlan, who also noted that, "In the classroom, you are protected if you give a presentation that is pedagogically responsible." Karlan added that, "You have a huge amount of rights in the classroom, but you need to stick to the subject."

Anti-gay religious site LifeSiteNews spun the story as a victory for "free speech," declaring in a July 26 article that, "The district had initially argued that its professors have no free speech rights in the classroom, but a federal court rejected that argument and determined that 'a teacher's instructional speech is protected by the First Amendment.' "

The site went on to clarify that the district's position was that Sheldon "is an employee and does not have a First Amendment cause of action for the Defendants' regulation of her in-class speech," meaning that, from the college's perspective, it was reasonable to require that professors stay on topic while delivering their comments during class time, and refrain from interjecting personal opinion in inappropriate ways.

Sheldon's conservative Christian representation attempted to depict that position as being a contradiction to the district's policy on "Academic Freedom," which reads, in part, "The common good depends on the free search for truth and its free expression; to this end, faculty and students hold the right of full freedom of inquiry and expression."

"So while the District promised freedom, it still wanted the right to censor and punish faculty for speech it disliked," Hacker declared. "This is a dangerous position that all faculty should be concerned about, lest they fall into the same trap as Professor Sheldon."

LifeSiteNews noted a similarity between Sheldon's case and that of Kenneth Howell, who was fired from the University of Illinois in Champaign after having emailed remarks about homosexuality to his students. Like Sheldon, Howell was a non-tenured professor, meaning that he had less job security than a tenured professor would have. Howell lost his job at the university 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."

"Natural Moral Law"

The student who made the complaint was not in Dr. Howell's class. Rather, the 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 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."

Catholic news site Catholic Online seized on the story in a July 12 article as an example of what it called the "Dictatorship of Relativism," with reference to a claim made by Pope Benedict XVI. "This egregious violation of the Professors constitutional rights and overt censorship of speech which is unpopular to the Cultural revolutionaries who have grabbed the reigns of Western society, is now being reviewed by the Alliance Defense Fund for a legal response," exclaimed the Catholic Online article.

The article reprinted the text of Howell's letter explaining his firing. In that letter, Howell recounted the Catholic view that teaches, "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. This is what I taught in my class."

Catholic Online commented on Howell's account, calling the former adjunct professor a "hero" and slamming "the terrible intolerance of those who claim that they are enforcing tolerance." Added the article, "Professor Howell has been fired for teaching truth. He is a freedom fighter. Authentic Human Freedom cannot be realized in decisions made against God and against the Natural Law. Authentic freedom has a moral constitution. It must be exercised in reference to the truth concerning the human person, the family, our obligations in solidarity to one another and the common good.

"This is a serious warning to all who hold that truth exists in an age which has followed the pied piper of relativism into bondage," the article went on. "Professor Howell is a hero."

The Allied Defense Fund, which seeks to "keep the door open for the spread of the Gospel through the legal defense and advocacy of religious freedom, the sanctity of human life, and traditional family values," is examining at the case, reported the News-Gazette.

"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. The Alliance Defense Fund is working with Professor Howell because the defense of academic freedom is essential on the university campus."

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.

Science Text: The Bible?

In another case with similarities to that of Sheldon's, a Fresno City College instructor ran afoul of college officials after allegedly teaching that homosexuality is a treatable mental pathology. Science instructor Bradley Lopez "engaged in conduct that could result in the creation of a hostile learning environment by unreasonably interfering with students' learning by making insulting comments directed at homosexuals," college official Christopher Villa wrote in an article published by the school's paper. Villa went on to say that Lopez had expressed personal opinions during classroom time that were "unrelated to any legitimate course objective."

Lopez also reportedly assigned his students to read the Bible, and read from the Bible during his science classes. "Instructors are not required to hide their own religious belief or non-belief, but they may not engage in religious indoctrination as Dr. Lopez did here," wrote Villa. Fresno City College is a public--not private religious--school. Lopez denied using the Bible as a textbook, but he reportedly assigned his students to prepare a genetic profile of Jesus--whom Christians believe was the result of an immaculate conception, with no biological father--and cited Biblical accounts of the end times during a lecture on global warming.

Other controversies arose in the academic environment with two similar cases in which counseling students found that their anti-gay Christian views clashed with the professional standards and ethics of the mental health profession. In one case, a 24-year-old graduate student named Jennifer Keeton, who views homosexuality as a choice made by gay individuals rather than as an innate characteristic, was instructed by Augusta State University in Georgia to attend "diversity sensitivity training" because her views on gays are, according to the university, "unethical and incompatible with the prevailing views of the counseling profession." Keeton disagreed, saying that she would not be impaired as a counselor by her faith-based views of gays.

The Alliance Defense Fund was involved in Keeton's case also, bringing suit against Augusta State University on Keeton's behalf and depicting the case as an example of a Christian being subjected to intolerant "leftist" oppression.

"A public university student shouldn't be threatened with expulsion for being a Christian and refusing to publicly renounce her faith, but that's exactly what's happening here," declared ADF's David French. "Simply put, the university is imposing thought reform."

The ADF also brought suit against Eastern Michigan University on behalf of Julea Ward, who had told an academic hearing at the university that she would not condone any conduct that would "go... against what the Bible says," but who also offered assurances that she would honor the professional and ethical standards expected by the American Counseling Association. The university expelled Ward from the program, triggering the suit.

But Federal judge George Caram Steeh dismissed the case on July 26, noting that Ward had "stated that she would not engage in gay-affirming counseling, which she viewed as helping a homosexual client engage in an immoral lifestyle," and saying that Ward had not had her Constitutional rights infringed upon by the university's actions. The judge also opined that the university "had a right and duty" to insist that students in its counseling program would conduct themselves in accordance with the profession's ethical standards. The ADH has said that it will appeal.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.