Stars Shine on Christian Researcher

U. of Kentucky settles religious discrimination lawsuit with spurned astronomer with controversial views on biology.
January 19, 2011

The University of Kentucky has settled a religious discrimination lawsuit with C. Martin Gaskell, a former University of Nebraska astronomer whom Kentucky declined to hire as director of its Lexington-based observatory.

After being snubbed for the directorship in 2007, Gaskell alleged that Kentucky officials had passed on him because of his Christian views -- a claim his lawyers say is supported by e-mails sent by members of the search committee, as well as sworn testimony given by the panel's members and other Kentucky faculty. The university will pay the spurned astronomer $125,000 -- roughly the equivalent of the extra money Gaskell would have made if he had held the directorship for two years, according to Francis Marion, a senior trial lawyer for the National Center for Law & Justice, which worked the astronomer's case pro bono. A district court judge had denied motions for summary judgment from both parties.

The bulk of Gaskell’s published work addresses the technical aspects of black holes. But he also made a hobby of criticizing the prima facie dismissal of Biblical assertions as irrelevant to scientific theory, while advocating for a view of natural history that rejects neither the Judeo-Christian creation story nor evolution. In a document published on his personal website -- which later became fodder for discussion among his would-be employers at Kentucky -- Gaskell criticized both creationists and evolutionary scientists for perpetuating bad science.

“It is true that there are significant scientific problems in evolutionary theory … and that these problems are bigger than is usually made out in introductory geology/biology courses,” wrote Gaskell in an essay titled “Modern Astronomy, The Bible, and Creation.”

“But the real problem with humanistic evolution," he continues, "is in the unwarranted atheistic assumptions and extrapolations. It is the latter that ‘creationists’ should really be attacking.”

The essay goes on to assert that mainstream astronomers have gone to great lengths to sidestep the “theistic implications of the Big Bang,” proposing alternative theories that have amounted to bunk. He then cites a number of passages in the Book of Genesis that could plausibly refer to accepted scientific phenomena. “The main point that I’d like to get across from doing this,” Gaskell concludes, “is that given that there is a possible scientific explanation of most things, one cannot say ‘science disproves Genesis.’ ”

In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Gaskell said he uses that essay as a working template for an occasional lecture he gives on request, mostly to Christian groups. There have been instances, though, when he has been invited to give the talk to academic audiences -- including at the University of Kentucky, where Gaskell says he visited in 1997 at the request of the physics department.

But Gaskell says it was Kentucky’s biology department that sank his candidacy for the observatory directorship. Upon discovering his lecture notes online, several members of the search committee expressed curiosity, though not necessarily alarm. “Clearly this man is complex and likely fascinating to talk to -- but possibly evangelical,” wrote one committee member in an e-mail. “If we hire him, we should expect similar content to be posted on or directly linked from the department website.” Another, noting that he was aware of Gaskell’s religious disposition, responded, “Personally, I believe in freedom of religion, and have no problem with Martin as long as he does not use the classroom or official university sites as a pulpit.”

But the search committee then consulted with members of the Kentucky biology faculty about Gaskell's writings -- a stage of vetting to which other candidates were not exposed and that had no apparent relevance to his qualifications for the directorship, Gaskell says. According to court documents, the biologists expressed some misgivings about hiring a candidate who professes what some might interpret to be creationist sympathies, insofar as his outreach duties as director of Kentucky’s observatory would make him an ambassador of the university’s science departments.

“[A non-committee member] suggested, in particular, that we might one day wake up to a [Lexington] Herald-Leader headline citing ‘UK hires creationist as Observatory Director,’” wrote one member of the search committee in an e-mail. “Such a headline would probably not be a fair representation of Martin’s personal views, which are not simple, but the headline could appear nonetheless.”

And then there were the lamentations of the search committee chair, Thomas Troland. Days before the committee was to offer the observatory directorship to another candidate, Troland wrote an e-mail to a fellow committee member expressing how disappointed he was that, in his view, Gaskell’s theological propensities spooked the committee members into choosing a less well-qualified candidate.

“It has become clear to me that there is virtually no way Gaskell will be offered the job despite his qualifications that stand far above those of any other applicant,” Troland wrote. “…[T]he real reason we will not offer him this job is because of his religious beliefs in matters that are unrelated to astronomy or to any of the duties that are specified to this position.” Outreach in the field of biology, he noted, does not fall within the responsibilities of the observatory director. Four days later, Troland was Gaskell’s lone champion as the committee endorsed a different applicant by a 4-to-1 vote.

In its motion for summary judgment, the University of Kentucky argued that it was perfectly reasonable for the search committee to factor into its decision how adverse reactions to Gaskell’s public writings on campus and elsewhere might have disrupted the “true mission” of the observatory. The theological nature of those writings was immaterial, said the university’s lawyers. “Forcing the University to hire Gaskell if there were serious and legitimate concerns regarding the scientific integrity of his public statements because those statements touch on religious topics is not supported by the law nor should it be the law,” they wrote.

In a statement released Tuesday, the university said it stands by the search process and its outcome, and that it settled with Gaskell simply to avoid the headache and expense of a trial. Gaskell, who took a job as a research fellow with the University of Texas at Austin and is now preparing to relocate to the Universidad de Valparaiso, in Chile, said he is satisfied by the terms of the settlement.

Observers of the case had a range of reactions.

“This case is a serious reminder to us all that public academic and research institutions need to be free of discrimination, including religious discrimination and bias, in hiring and in their environment,” wrote Jennifer Wiseman, director of the dialogue on science, ethics, and religion at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed.

“This is especially important for the health of the scientific enterprise. Excellent scientists represent a wide range of cultural backgrounds and religious beliefs, and a diverse faculty working together can be a great benefit to students, science education, and research achievement.” (Wiseman emphasized that the AAAS did not have a position on the settlement and that her views are her own.)

But Paul Z. Myers, an associate professor of biology at the University of Minnesota at Morris (and keeper of the popular blog Pharyngula), said the Kentucky search committee was within its rights to consider how members of the biology faculty would feel about the university hiring to a high-profile position an astronomer whom they considered hostile to their views and methods. “I wouldn’t want to hire a biologist that’s going around on the side saying that the world is flat,” Myers said. “...Collegiality is a significant factor in employment decisions here.”


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