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Anti-Gay Bias or Academic Freedom?

September 4, 2012

The gay alumni group at Franciscan University of Steubenville last week tried to draw attention to a course it views as anti-gay, and ended up embroiled in disputes not only over that course but over the group's right to link itself to the university in a public way.

Franciscan is a university that prides itself on strict adherence to Roman Catholic teachings, and the alumni group has no official connection to the university. But it has called itself, based on its members and their affiliations, Franciscan University Gay Alumni and Allies. Under that name, the group last week issued a news release questioning why the university offers a course that links homosexuality with forms of deviant behavior.

The course description, pulled from the university's catalog, states: "DEVIANT BEHAVIOR focuses on the sociological theories of deviant behavior such as strain theory, differential association theory, labeling theory, and phenomenological theory. The behaviors that are primarily examined are murder, rape, robbery, prostitution, homosexuality, mental illness, and drug use. The course focuses on structural conditions in society that potentially play a role in influencing deviant behavior."

The initial response from the university was not to answer the critique offered of the course description, but to threaten to take legal action against the alumni group. The university's general counsel sent a letter (released by the alumni group) to the organization saying that "you have no right to use the name of Franciscan University ... in any of your activities.... Should you not comply with my demand that you cease and desist, I will take all measures available to the university to interdict your activities as they relate to the university."

In response, the alumni group dropped the word "university" from its name, but it continues to ask why the course is being described (and apparently) taught in that way.

"Despite more than 25 years of solid mainstream scholarship in the fields of psychology, social work, and mental health demonstrating the psychological health of gay and lesbian individuals, Franciscan University continues to teach otherwise, allowing pseudo-science to be taught at an accredited university," said a statement from the alumni group. "To classify the normal day-to-day life of gay and lesbian citizens as being on par with that of murderers, rapists, and prostitutes is offensive, untrue, and an example of religious ideology being allowed to trump the scientifically demonstrated truth of the matter."

The statement continued: "The latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) does NOT include homosexuality as a disorder or form of deviant behavior. All major professional mental health organizations have gone on record to affirm that homosexuality is not a mental disorder or deviant behavior. The continued classification of homosexuality as deviant behavior is rejected by the overwhelming majority of the professional psychological community and by many Catholic theologians."

The alumni group closed its statement by urging the university "to revise its course descriptions and to stop contributing the culture of hate and ignorance that is already too pervasive.... It is about time the university aligns itself with the truth of this matter and gets on board with the positions of respected scholars and professionals who operate from valid and repeatable research and evidence."

In response to questions from Inside Higher Ed, the university released a statement by Daniel R. Kempton, vice president for academic affairs. In the statement, he said that some materials used in the course "present the view that homosexual behavior is not deviant." But Kempton said that principles of academic freedom apply to the course and that the view that homosexuality is deviant is a legitimate perspective for the course.

While critics of the university are "entitled to their opinion that their understanding of homosexual behavior is scientifically confirmed and thus should be imposed on all universities, we respectfully disagree," he said. Kempton quoted Catechism of the Catholic Church as saying that while gay people should be treated with respect and dignity, "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity."

At Franciscan, Kempton said, offering that perspective is essential, and academic freedom should protect the idea. "[O]ur faculty members have the right to present a variety of views in the classroom," the statement said. Then, quoting the university's mission statement, Kempton said that "Franciscan University opposes the promotion of propositions and values contrary to Catholic teaching." He added: "In sum, our faculty can present a variety of views on a topic, but cannot promote values contrary to Catholic teaching."

 

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