A private Christian college in Oklahoma has come under fire for terminating a professor who says he was let go for bringing an LGBTQ guest speaker to his classroom.
Michael O’Keefe taught graphic design at Oklahoma Christian University for more than 40 years before being fired March 7, NBC affiliate KFOR in Oklahoma City reported.
O’Keefe’s lawyer, Kevin Jacobs, accused the school of discrimination and said the school unfairly disciplined the longtime professor.
“Letting students expect a world where you may be different is the message Mr. O’Keefe wanted his students to hear. That’s the message this speaker delivered, not an advocacy of gay rights,” Jacobs said in a statement to KFOR. “Unfortunately, that’s not permitted at Oklahoma Christian University today. It cost Mr. O’Keefe his job.”
The speaker that allegedly cost O’Keefe his job was a guest in his senior-level class The Business of Branding Yourself, where one of the topics addressed was “overcoming obstacles and developing resilience and character,” according to Jacobs’ statement. The openly gay speaker, the statement noted, was also an Oklahoma Christian University alumnus and was employed as an adjunct professor at the university for nearly 20 years.
In his statement, Jacobs said his client was still “evaluating all the options he has to address this unjustified and wrongful action.”
Neither O’Keefe nor his lawyer immediately responded to requests for comment.
In an email to NBC News, the university shared a brief statement from Oklahoma Christian University lawyer Stephen Eck: “The decision to end employment was made after a thorough review process. The university will always put first the wellbeing of our students in every decision we make.”
The university also shared a link to its “mission, vision and values” statement, which read, in part: “We strive to treat our bodies with the honor due the temple of the Holy Spirit — honoring God’s plan that sexual relations be a part of a marriage between a man and a woman, dressing modestly and avoiding any self-destructive practices (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).”
Emily Thornton, a 2019 graduate of the university, said O’Keefe’s firing will be felt across the school community.
“He guides the students from start to finish,” she said, adding that he was invested in their success throughout their time at Oklahoma Christian University. “So losing him suddenly, those students are now abandoned.”
Thornton said when she was a student at Oklahoma Christian, LGBTQ students and allies were frequently targeted, with students facing the risk of expulsion for hosting LGBTQ meetings on campus. She said the school’s policies took a toll on the mental health of some of her LGBTQ classmates.
“It was tough watching some of my best friends go through that,” Thornton, 24, told NBC News. “They had a relationship with God and a relationship with someone of the same sex, and the school wasn’t accepting of that.”
“You have to give up one or the other if you’re at that school, and that’s not a decision that needs to be made, but it was being forced to be made,” she added.
Thornton also condemned the administration’s decision to fire O’Keefe as discriminatory.
“I wish they could look me in the eyes and tell me, ‘Because students are homosexual, we’re not going to accept them,’” she said. “What they’re doing is really telling the students straight up, ‘We discriminate. We don’t accept you. You’re not welcome here.’”