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California State University at Northridge has settled a lawsuit brought by a former employee who said he was fired for sharing news of an archaeological discovery that supported his young-Earth creationist beliefs. The university says it settled for $399,500 to avoid a protracted legal battle, but some scientists say the outcome has implications for how scientists critique creationist colleagues going forward.
The plaintiff, Mark Armitage, managed the Northridge biology department’s electron and confocal microscopy suite starting in 2010. In 2012, during a digging trip to Montana’s well-known Hell Creek Formation, he found a massive triceratops horn. Beyond its unusually large size, Armitage found something even more significant inside: soft tissue.
While dinosaur soft tissue finds are not unprecedented, they are extremely rare because the tissue simply doesn’t preserve like the hard mineral parts -- think bones and teeth -- that make up most fossils. Other scientists have offered explanations for the preservation of soft tissue that fit within the scientific consensus on when the dinosaurs lived, tens of millions of years ago, namely the presence of iron. Yet for Armitage his discovery offered proof of his young-Earth creationist view.
Because the tissue “looked alive” under a microscope and because no soft tissue had ever been found in a triceratops horn up until that point, he believed the find to be just 4,000 years old, according to the suit. While paleontologists find the timeline off in just about every way, that's the kind of analysis that appeals to those who take the Bible as a literal guide to world history.
Armitage published his findings in 2013 in Acta Histochemica, a peer-reviewed journal, leaving out his interpretation of the tissue’s age. But he engaged students he was training in a Socratic dialogue about the possible age of the horn -- one of whom enthusiastically shared the conversation with a faculty member in the biology department, according to the suit. The professor allegedly entered Armitage's office and said, “We are not going to tolerate your religion in this department.”
Armitage said he complained verbally of religious discrimination to two administrators, who told him to forget about it and never investigated.
Two weeks after his article was published, and after Armitage allegedly was excluded from a secret meeting of a microscopy committee on which he served, Northridge fired Armitage. In the interim, a colleague told him he was the subject of a “witch hunt,” and suggested that he resign, according to the complaint.
The university argued that it acted due to budgetary adjustments and a declining need for Armitage’s services; he was a part-time, temporary employee, it said. But Armitage charged religious discrimination and wrongful termination in his 2014 lawsuit. His view is that faculty scientists didn’t want to be associated with a published creationist.
Armitage had written previously in support of creationism, including in a 2008 book called Jesus Is Like My Scanning Electron Microscope: (A Scientist Looks at His Relationship With the Creator), of which he said Northridge was aware when it hired him. Yet he alleged that his immediate colleagues and students were largely unaware of his beliefs though 2012, and praised him highly for his job performance -- even asking him to teach a full graduate course in microscopic imaging.
Cal State Northridge said in an emailed statement that it is “firmly committed to upholding academic freedom, free speech and a respect for all religious beliefs.” The statement noted that the court did not rule on the merits of Armitage’s complaint, and that the settlement was voluntary and “not an indication of any wrongdoing.” The decision to not renew Armitage’s contract was based on “budgetary considerations and a dwindling need for his services,” the university said. Settling was about avoiding the costs associated with a "protracted legal battle, including manpower, time and state dollars.”
A university spokesperson said a big chunk of the nearly $400,000 settlement would cover Armitage's legal fees. His attorney, Alan J. Reinach, executive director of the Church State Council, said the sum amounted to about 15 times his client’s annual part-time salary at Northridge. In other words, he said, “It’s significant.”
A YouTube video Armitage made about his settlement says he’s been “vindicated by the [Los Angeles courts].” His research “stands head and shoulders above all the other work that’s been found so far on soft tissue and dinosaur bones,” it says, “and that’s why [Northridge] had to throw him away. His work is a lit powder keg.”
The video notes that earlier in the case, a judge rejected the university’s request for summary judgment. It quotes Armitage as saying, “Well-meaning Christians who find themselves as an enemy of the state over their beliefs need to stand up and fight.” Saying he cannot defeat “the Goliath” himself, he directs viewers to a fund-raising site for future research.
Reinach said the settlement was notably the first time, to his knowledge, that “a creationist scientist has prevailed in a religious discrimination claim against a public university.”
Universities going forward “should be really, really careful, and stick to the science,” he added. “Biology and other science departments should stick to the science and respect people’s religious differences.”
Scientists aren’t always hostile to creationist colleagues -- Ball State University granted tenure earlier this year to Eric Hedin, a professor of physics previously accused of proselytizing creationism in a science seminar, for example. And many say they have no problem with teaching about creationist beliefs in religion courses outside of science departments.
But some scholars say the Northridge settlement could make policing the line between science and religion more fraught. Not necessarily a bad thing -- just different.
Jerry Coyne, a well-known blogger on evolution and a professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, said the settlement is “problematic for universities that don't have the financial resources for a protracted lawsuit.” At the same time, he said, if Armitage’s colleagues really did engage in religious discrimination, “that's not acceptable, so they may have faced an uphill battle.”
In an argument similar to Reinach’s, but from a different perspective, Coyne said college and universities “need to stay away from the religious beliefs of professors and just adjudicate the science alone. Had they done that, Armitage would clearly have lost, as his [claims] aren't credible.”
Adam Laats, a professor of education at the State University of New York at Binghamton who studies cultural conflicts in the classroom, said the settlement probably won’t change things for science in the short term. But if Northridge employees had known "about the deep-pocket legal groups that were committed to pursuing Armitage’s case, they would have handled themselves very differently from the get-go,” he added.
Academic scientists underestimate the prevalence of creationism in American culture and even among their own ranks -- admitting that there are varying degrees of creationism, Laats said. “Their glib assumption that they don’t need to know about creationism will lead to more cases like this.”