CASE TYPE: Jobs and qualifications under threat for personal statements of belief

Rabbi Shimon Cowen

Rabbi Dr. Shimon Cowen is a respected scholar and expert on religion and ethics. He has devoted his life to exploring life’s deepest questions of how we should live, and has written many highly regarded books on ethics and religion. In 2015 the Vice-Chancellor of Monash University unilaterally committed the university to the cause of same-sex marriage. Fr. Geoff Harvey, Orthodox Chaplain at Monash University, testified later that the university’s support for same-sex marriage was so forceful that it “created real inhibitions of debate and free speech within the broad sections of religious students and staff.”

 

Rabbi Cowen had been researching his then forthcoming book, Homosexuality, Marriage, and Society – published the following year – which was highly relevant to the same-sex marriage debate then taking place. Given his expertise on questions of ethics and sexuality Rabbi Cowen, a Senior Honorary Associate at Monash University at the time, e-mailed to municipal councilors notification of a booklet which he had written which he described as “a comprehensive briefing on [same-sex marriage] from the standpoint of the Judaeo-Christian tradition”. Rabbi Cowen wanted nothing more than to contribute to a constructive public dialogue. Indeed, Rabbi Cowen was only living up to the Monash University Act (Div.1, e iii) “promoting critical and free enquiry, informed intellectual discourse and public debate within the University and in the wider society.”

 

One of the municipal councilors wrote to the Vice-Chancellor, Margaret Gardner, accusing Rabbi Cowen of “blatant bigotry and homophobia”. Without a formal warning or any opportunity being given to Rabbi Cowen to address the complaint or defend his work, the Dean of the faculty of Arts revoked Rabbi Cowen’s honorary status on the grounds of misuse of the university e-mail protocols. Rabbi Cowen was using his email account to contribute, in the words of the University’s statute, to “public debate…in the wider society”. Universities rarely, if ever, have an issue with this. In Rabbi Cowen’s case the university took serious action. When Rabbi Cowen appealed this decision to the Vice-Chancellor she replied that she had authorized the Dean’s actions against him and closed the matter. Rabbi Cowen lost his honorary status.

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