Job candidate sues UK, claiming religion cost him the post

Job candidate sues UK, claiming religion cost him the post
By Peter Smith • • December 10, 2010

No one denies that astronomer Martin Gaskell was the leading candidate for the founding director of a new observatory at the University of Kentucky in 2007 — until his writings on evolution came to light.

Gaskell had given lectures to campus religious groups around the country in which he said that while he has no problem reconciling the Bible with the theory of evolution, he believes the theory has major flaws. And he recommended students read theory critics in the intelligent-design movement.

That stance alarmed UK science professors and, the university acknowledges, played a role in the job going to another candidate.

Now a federal judge says Gaskell has a right to a jury trial over his allegation that he lost the job because he is a Christian and "potentially evangelical."

“The record contains substantial evidence that Gaskell was a leading candidate for the position until the issue of his religion or his scientific position became an issue,” U.S. Senior District Judge Karl S. Forester of the Eastern District of Kentucky wrote late last month in rejecting the university's motion for summary judgment, which would have dismissed the case.

Forester has set a trial date of Feb. 8 on Gaskell’s claims the university violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act's ban on job bias on the basis of religion.

UK, in a legal brief, acknowledged that concerns over Gaskell's views on evolution played a role in the decision to chose another candidate. But it argued that this was a valid scientific concern, and that there were other factors, including a poor review from a previous supervisor and UK faculty views that he was a poor listener.

In its brief, UK said professors worried about Gaskell's "casual blending of religion and science" and feared the then-planned MacAdam Student Observatory’s "true mission … would be thwarted by controversy that has nothing to do with astronomy."

Gaskell's lawsuit, however, argues UK officials repeatedly referred to his religion in their discussions and e-mails. And he argues that UK mistook him for a creationist — someone who believes the Bible disproves the theory of evolution.

Originally, Gaskell was rated the leading candidate by the UK search committee, which was looking for a founding director for the observatory, which opened in 2008.

Gaskell had a doctorate in his field, had published extensively on such subjects as black holes in space, and had developed an observatory at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln atop a campus parking garage — an innovative approach UK eventually would use.

But search committee members also learned of lecture notes Gaskell posted on his University of Nebraska website for a talk, "Modern Astronomy, the Bible and Creation." Gaskell had given the talk to religious and other groups at campuses around the country, including one at UK in the 1990s.

Much of the lecture seeks to show the harmony between modern astronomy and the biblical book of Genesis. But on the topic of biology, Gaskell says there are “major scientific problems in evolutionary theory," even though he accepts it. The notes are now part of the court record.

One search committee member, Sally Shafer, called Gaskell “fascinating,” but “potentially evangelical” in an e-mail to the chairs of the search committee and the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

The court record also shows:

An astronomy professor, Moshe Elitzur, told department chair Michael Cavagnero that he feared embarrassing headlines about Kentucky's flagship university hiring a “creationist” in a state already home to the controversial Creation Museum.

And three UK biology professors consulted by Cavagnero vigorously objected to Gaskell's hiring.

One, Jim Krupa, said hiring Gaskell would be a "disaster," particularly because UK planned to use the observatory to promote science education among the general public. UK "might as well have folks from the Creation Museum get involved with UK's science outreach" if it hired him, he wrote to Cavagnero.

Another geology professor, Shelly Steiner, wrote that UK should no more hire an astronomer skeptical of evolution than “a biologist who believed that the sun revolved around the Earth."

Gaskell has said he rejects the brand of creationism taught at the Creation Museum in Northern Kentucky, which presents a literal interpretation of the Bible. It says the Earth and all life were created a few thousand years ago in six 24-hour days and disputes the scientific consensus that both developed gradually over billions of years.

Gaskell, in his lecture notes, calls such creationism “very bad scientifically and theologically” and said it “actually hinders some scientists becoming Christians.”

But UK biologists said in their e-mails that evidence for evolution was so overwhelming that Gaskell had no scientific basis to raise questions about it.

And they disputed his positive words for the intelligent design movement — which says life is too complex to have been developed through evolutionary natural selection. The biologists said intelligent design is religion, not science, echoing a landmark Pennsylvania federal court ruling in 2005.

Gaskell bases the claims in his lawsuit in part on an October 2007 e-mail by professor Thomas Troland, the chair of the UK search committee for the observatory job, to Cavagnero.

Troland lamented that UK was rejecting a “superbly qualified” candidate for “religious beliefs in matters that are unrelated to astronomy." Troland wrote that this "repudiated any claim to honoring the principles of diversity that are so piously proclaimed on this campus."

But in a March 2010 deposition, Troland said he no longer agrees with what he wrote. He now accepts that opposition was over Gaskell's scientific rather than religious views. He said he wrote the e-mail in frustration that others didn't share his high opinion of Gaskell.

Gaskell, a native of England, is now a research fellow at the University of Texas' McDonald Observatory. His suit is seeking financial damages for lost income and emotional distress.

One of Gaskell's attorneys, Francis J. Manion, said Gaskell “would have been the perfect foil to what those (UK) decision-makers view as the kind of scientific obscurantism represented by the Creation Museum: an openly Christian man of science who accepts evolution.”

Manion, of New Hope, Ky., who represents Gaskell on behalf of the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, said he advised Gaskell not to comment while the case is pending.

UK spokesman Jay Blanton declined to comment beyond the legal filings because the case involved pending litigation.

Reporter Peter Smith can be reached at (502) 582-4469.