US university settles religious discrimination case
Jan 19, 2011 33 comments
A settlement has been reached in a case brought against the University of Kentucky by astrophysicist Martin Gaskell over his claim that the university illegally denied him a staff position on the basis of his evangelical Christian faith. The settlement now requires the university to pay $125,000 to Gaskell and his lawyers, who claimed that the decision meant Gaskell lost income and caused him "emotional distress". The university admits no wrongdoing in the case, which was due to go to trial on 8 February. Meanwhile, Gaskell has taken a job at Chile's University of Valparaiso, which he will start in March.
The case centred on Gaskell's application in 2007 to become founding director of the University of Kentucky's then-planned MacAdam Student Observatory. The controversy surrounding his candidature focused mainly on concerns, expressed in e-mails shared among University of Kentucky astronomers and biologists, that his statements indicated a belief in creationism or intelligent design rather than evolutionary theory.
Both sides agreed that Gaskell was a leading candidate for the job, but they disagreed on the reasons for his rejection in favour of astronomer Timothy Knauer, who is currently the observatory's director. Gaskell asserted that he was rejected because of his faith and what he says was a misreading of his views on evolution. The university claimed, however, that the decision rested on issues of personality and communication skills.
"As the settlement makes clear, the university believes its hiring processes were, and are, fundamentally sound," says University of Kentucky lawyer Barbara Jones, who adds that members of the university "all appropriately worked through the hiring process in a manner completely consistent with other positions".
Gaskell's lawyer Francis Manion says that the case has "shed some much-needed light" on a problem that is not just limited to the University of Kentucky. "It is simply untenable to think that an avowed Christian, evangelical or otherwise, or any other scientist of religious faith, is somehow incapable or less capable of performing his or her job in science education, research or outreach," he says.
A matter of faith
Born in the UK, Gaskell describes himself as "a non-denominational evangelical". His research focuses on supermassive black holes in quasars and active galactic nuclei. He has also lectured and written about the relationship between modern astronomy, the Bible, and creation. "I am not a creationist. The correct label for someone like me is 'theistic evolutionist'," Gaskell told Physics World. "I have never given a lecture on evolution or biology in my life. I've not published research papers on evolution, either."
University of Kentucky faculty members saw the situation differently. Michael Cavagnero, head of physics and astronomy at Kentucky, claims that Gaskell gave a public talk on the University of Kentucky's campus in 1997 "that contained, according to members of the university's biology department, inaccurate and pejorative statements about contemporary scientific culture and its "hidden atheistic assumptions", including erroneous statements concerning the theory of evolution by natural selection". "I came to the conclusion that, while a talented astronomer, Dr Gaskell is a lousy biologist," says Cavagnero.
Cavagnero adds that Gaskell's "religious views played no role in the decision" not to appoint him. "Timothy Knauer's personality and talents were ideally aligned to the staff position," Cavagnero says.
About the author
Peter Gwynne is Physics World's North America correspondent