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Prof settles over religious discrimination

LEXINGTON, Ky. (BP)–An astronomy professor has won a settlement after suing the University of Kentucky for religious discrimination, a case that could have national implications regarding religious intolerance in academia.

The university agreed to pay $125,000 to Martin Gaskell, who was represented in the case by the American Center for Law and Justice.

“In bringing this case and successfully resolving it we believe we have shed some light on a problem that is by no means limited to the University of Kentucky,” Frank Manion, senior trial counsel for ACLJ, said Jan. 18.

Gaskell, now a research fellow at the University of Texas at Austin, was one of two finalists in 2007 in the search for a founding director of the University of Kentucky’s MacAdam Student Observatory.

In an earlier ruling, U.S. District Judge Karl Forester noted that the chair of the search committee described Gaskell as “superbly qualified,” “breathtakingly above the other applicants” and someone “who has already done everything we would want the observatory director to do.”

Yet during the search process, a member of the committee discovered an article titled “Modern Astronomy, the Bible and Creation” on Gaskell’s personal website and circulated it to the committee, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader. The committee member described Gaskell as “complex and likely fascinating to talk with, but potentially evangelical.”

Instead of hiring Gaskell to direct the observatory, the committee chose a former student and employee of the university’s physics and astronomy department.

Forester, in his ruling against the university’s motion for summary judgment, wrote that the head of the search committee admitted in an e-mail to the chair of the physics and astronomy department that “no objective observer could possibly believe that we excluded Martin on any basis other than religious ….”

The department chair said “the debate generated by Gaskell’s website and his religious beliefs was an ‘element’ in the decision not to hire Gaskell,” the judge also noted. The search committee head wrote that “other reasons will be given for the choice … but the real reason we will not offer him the job is because of his religious beliefs in matters that are unrelated to astronomy or to any of the other duties specified for this position.”

The Herald-Leader reported that about a dozen e-mails among observatory search committee members mentioned religion as something they were considering related to Gaskell. Moshe Elitzur, an astrophysics professor, said hiring Gaskell would be a “huge public relations mistake,” according to one e-mail in court records.

“Moshe predicts that he would not be here one month before the Herald-Leader headline would read: ‘UK hires creationist to direct new student observatory,'” the e-mail said.

Gaskell has said he is not a creationist and believes “God has not yet revealed everything to us in the Bible” and “we don’t know all the answers in science yet,” the newspaper said.

His website commentary includes regret that creationists “attack” the science of evolutionists. While there are significant scientific problems in evolutionary theory, he said, the “real problem with humanistic evolution is the unwarranted atheistic assumptions and extrapolations.”

“What became clear is that the reaction of some of those involved in this hiring process to a scientist who dared to be open about his Christian faith is, unfortunately, fairly typical of academia generally,” Jay Sekulow, ACLJ’s chief counsel, wrote Jan. 18.

In his lawsuit, filed in 2009, Gaskell said the University of Kentucky violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employers from using an applicant’s race, color, religion, sex or national origin in hiring decisions.

“We’re pleased with the outcome of this case,” Sekulow said. “We can only hope that this case will send a message throughout academia that religious intolerance is just as unlawful as other forms of prejudice and bias.”

Gaskell declined to comment following the settlement, and an attorney for the University of Kentucky said the university “believes its hiring processes were and are fundamentally sound and were followed in this case.”
Erin Roach is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.

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