Students at Oxford University in England are calling for Australian legal philosopher and professor John Finnis to be fired over writings students believe are anti-gay.

Hundreds of students have signed the petition against Finnis, who says his writings – which include the idea that acceptance of homosexuality is “an active threat to the stability of existing and future marriages” – is “strictly philosophical”.

In 1994, he wrote that “the stability and protective and educative generosity of family life” should be maintained by “denying that homosexual conduct – a “gay lifestyle” – is a valid, humanly acceptable choice and form of life”.

In an article published in 2011, he took issue with the lack of discussion around “the reversibility of sexual orientation or the relation if any between sexual orientation and child-abuse”.

“Our petition argues that we should draw a line when professors dehumanise disadvantaged groups,” petitioners Alex Benn and Daniel Taylor wrote in The Guardian.

“Apparently, some critics think that this is too radical.”

Critics of the petition say firing Finnis would undermine academic and religious freedom, but those backing it perceive Finnis’ writings to be actively dehumanising students.

“The standard modern position involves a number of explicit or implicit judgments about the proper role of law and the compelling interests of political communities, and about the evil of homosexual conduct,” Finnis wrote in a 1994 paper.

“Can these be defended by reflective, critical, publicly intelligible and rational arguments? I believe they can.”

Finnis’ 1994 article says that gay sex is “sterile and disposes the participants to an abdication of responsibility for the future of humankind” and that it “cannot really actualize the mutual devotion which some homosexual persons hope to manifest and experience by it.”

Finnis wrote that “the whole ‘gay’ ideology treats human sexual capacities in a way which is deeply hostile to the self-understanding of those members of the community who are willing to commit themselves to real marriage.”

Writing about the distinction between offensive behaviour and “behavior to be repudiated as destructive of human character and relationships”, Finnis draws a comparison between the repudiation of “copulation of humans and animals” and “the deliberate genital coupling of persons of the same sex,” which is “repudiated for a very similar reason.”

Oxford University has responded to the circling of the petition by saying that “vigorous academic debate does not amount to harassment when conducted respectfully and without violating the dignity of others”.

The 78-year-old professor emeritus first studied at the University of Adelaide, winning a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford in 1962, and he has since advised Australian governments on constitutional matters.

“I stand by all these writings,” Finnis said, claiming “there is not a ‘phobic’ sentence in them.”

“The 1994 essay promotes a classical and strictly philosophical moral critique of all non-marital sex acts and has been republished many times.”

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