In an attempt to avoid violating civil rights laws, the University of Charleston has made changes to a controversial job requirement the stated that applicants for the Herchiel and Elizabeth Sims “In God We Trust” Chair in Ethics must believe in God.
“It was a mistake,” Edwin H. Welch, president of the West Virginia university, said Wednesday. “We didn’t know that we were violating the law. The wording just didn’t come out well.”
The words that were especially problematic, according to legal scholars, were those that stated candidates “must embrace a belief in God and present moral and ethical values from a God-centered perspective.” The full advertisement first appeared Monday and for a portion of the day on Tuesday.
Ian Ayres, a professor at Yale University Law School and expert on civil rights, said Tuesday that because the University of Charleston is a private, non-religious employer, the job requirements appeared to violate the Civil Rights Act, which says that an employer may not “fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”
Welch explained that administrators, upon consulting with lawyers, decided to change the controversial wording to read, “The candidate must have the ability to teach moral and ethical values from a God-centered perspective.”
He said that agnostics or atheists, if they apply for the job, would be considered equally as candidates who believe in God. “A Christian can teach Muslim studies, so I don’t see why an atheist couldn’t teach about God,” he said. He added that the requirements were made by the institution, not by any one individual.
Erwin Chemerinsky, a law professor at Duke University and expert on constitutional law, said that the restated requirements put the university on safer legal ground. “So long as they do not discriminate on the basis of religion, it’s permissible,” he said.
Welch said that the original language was suggested by members of the Sims family, which donated $1.4 million to create the chair three years ago, in the interest of promoting the values of the Unites States’ motto “In God We Trust.” The chair will keep the name in the original job description, which contains that motto.
“The Sims’s interest is to have people know the motto of the U.S.,” said Welch. “They want to help people understand what that motto is -- it’s more patriotic than spiritual. If people are offended by it, so be it,” he said. “I would hope people would not take offense with the motto of the Unites States.”
Herchiel Sims could not be reached for comment on Wednesday, but Welch said he was confident that the donor would not revoke the donation.
Chemerinsky said that the “In God We Trust” label “is not likely to be legally objectionable” because, under the new job requirements, a person who doesn’t trust in God could be hired for the position.