CHICAGO – An adjunct religion instructor barred from teaching by the University of Illinois after defending the Roman Catholic stance on homosexuality has been invited back to teach this fall.

Kenneth Howell, an adjunct associate professor, was reinstated Thursday — a day after the deadline when his lawyers said they would sue the university for violating his academic freedom if administrators failed to reinstate him.

University officials also announced they would sign Howell’s paychecks, ending an unconventional decades-long practice by which the church compensated whoever taught Catholic studies at the state university.

Jordan Lorence, an attorney for the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative legal consortium representing Howell, commended university officials for reconsidering their actions and reinstating Howell.

“The university has righted the wrong by letting Ken Howell back into the classroom,” Lorence said. “They should never have removed him in the first place.”

It wasn’t immediately clear Thursday whether Howell had accepted the university’s offer, which includes no guarantee of a job after the fall semester.

Under the offer, Howell would receive $10,000 to teach an “Introduction to Catholicism” class for the semester. Like all offers made to adjunct instructors, the offer is for only one semester, university spokeswoman Robin Kaler said.

It wasn’t clear Thursday how much Howell previously had been paid.

The decision to offer Howell the job back, Kaler said, was made by the School of Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics, which includes the university’s religious studies program. The class, she said, has been full since registration started in the spring. Classes start Aug. 23.

“The fall semester is fast approaching, so the school made the decision to contract with him to teach that course,” she said.

Abbas Benmamoun, incoming head of the School of Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics, declined comment.

Howell did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Another attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund said he appreciated the university’s decision but had not yet heard from Howell.

“We’re extremely pleased that Dr. Howell is back in the classroom,” David Hacker said. “But we’ll be watching carefully to make sure his academic freedom is protected through this ongoing process.”

Howell, who has taught on the Urbana-Champaign campus since 2001, was removed last month after a friend of a student in Howell’s “Introduction to Catholicism” and “Modern Catholic Thought” classes complained the instructor engaged in hate speech in an e-mail to students explaining Catholic doctrine on homosexual sex.

Howell has said he made clear to his students early in the semester that he is a Catholic and agrees with the church teachings he covers in class.

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

The anonymous student, in an e-mail to university leadership, then wrote: “Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing. Declaring that homosexual acts violate the natural laws of man is another.”

The subsequent removal of Howell — who had been recognized by his department in 2008 and 2009 for being rated an excellent teacher by students — generated outcry from alumni and students, including a Save Dr. Ken Facebook page. On Thursday, the page was filled with posts celebrating victory.

“I think the university realized from all this public criticism that they needed to examine their actions,” Lorence said. “I don’t think this was the university caving to improper pressure.”

But the reinstatement is only temporary. It does not affect an ongoing faculty review, which has been investigating whether Howell’s immediate removal violated his academic freedom or right to due process.

“We are going to be monitoring what happens now to make sure Ken Howell’s academic freedom under the First Amendment is protected,” Lorence said.

Another faculty committee appointed to examine the circumstances of Howell’s compensation concluded that the university’s relationship with St. John’s Catholic Newman Center, the Catholic ministry on campus, was indeed improper.

Although Howell taught in university classrooms, he was on the payroll of the Newman Center funded by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Peoria. The agreement remained in place despite scholars’ objections when a religious studies program was established in 1971.

The university’s Catholic chaplain at the time, Msgr. Edward Duncan, secured the unusual accommodation for Catholics. According to public records provided by the university, during the last 21 years, Duncan has given at least $464,000 for event sponsorships, performance support and support to the Campaign for Young Audiences.

“The basic problems of this relationship had been well-established and well-documented over a long period of time,” said Nicholas Burbules, a professor on the committee that reviewed the relationship. “This is the time to undo something that probably should’ve been undone 40 years ago.”

But Burbules added that’s not to say the Newman Center or other campus ministries shouldn’t offer religious education, only that students should not earn credit for that instruction that counts toward graduation.

“There’s absolutely a place for instruction through the Newman Center,” he said. “There needs to be a strict firewall between instruction at the Newman Center and the religious studies department.”

Patricia Gibson, chancellor of the diocese, said Howell will have some sort of job at the center if he continues teaching.

Gibson also said the diocese is comfortable with the university’s decision to no longer have the center pay the instructors who teach Catholic-related classes.

 

— The Associated Press and the Chicago Tribune contributed to this report.