The University of Kentucky has found itself smack in the middle of a religious discrimination case that is being watched nationwide.
At issue: Whether UK decided not to hire C. Martin Gaskell, a candidate for director of its observatory in 2007, because of his religious views, which both sides have described as evangelical.
In November, U.S. District Judge Karl S. Forester rejected a motion for dismissal filed by the university and allowed Gaskell vs. University of Kentucky to go to trial Feb. 8.
"There is no dispute that based on his application, Gaskell was a leading candidate for the position," Forester wrote in the ruling.
The trial will determine whether a scientist who has posted Internet opinions regarding biblical interpretation of the universe's creation was not hired because of religious discrimination — and, if so, how much the university owes him for lost wages and emotional distress.
The case has drawn nationwide news coverage and ignited the blogosphere with an incendiary debate about faith and science in the academic world.
The American Association of University Professors, which speaks for its 47,000 members about academic freedom, declined to speak to the individual case but acknowledged the question of religion might be different in the scientific disciplines.
"The American Association of University Professors' longstanding position is that academic personnel decisions should be based on considerations of disciplinary competence, as determined by professional peers," Gregory F. Scholtz, associate secretary and director of the association's department on academic freedom, wrote in an e-mail. "Such considerations tend to exclude a candidate's religious affiliations or beliefs."
However, he noted that in science-related positions, "such affiliations or beliefs might raise legitimate questions about disciplinary competence."
Francis Manion of the American Center for Law and Justice and one of Gaskell's attorneys, asked during a pre-trial conference in U.S. District Court last week whether the case would be going to trial if the issue was one of racial, rather than religious, discrimination. Gaskell's suit claims the university violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which banned employment discrimination on the basis of religion.
Gaskell, a research fellow at the McDonald Observatory at the University of Texas at Austin, was an unsuccessful candidate in 2007 when UK searched for a director for its MacAdam Observatory. UK instead hired Tim Knauer, a former student and employee of the UK Department of Physics and Astronomy. UK's July 2010 salary database lists Knauer's salary as $58,642.
In court papers, UK contends those researching Gaskell's qualifications found he had some difficulties with University of Nebraska-Lincoln faculty because he sought to decrease his teaching load and refused to accept the decisions of his colleagues and administrators.
But Manion said there were probably a dozen e-mails among observatory search committee members during the search in which religion was mentioned as something they were considering.
An astrophysics professor, Moshe Elitzur, said hiring Gaskell would be a "huge public relations mistake," according to one e-mail in court records, according to the Associated Press.
"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.' "
Gaskell has said he is not a creationist.
During the search, Sally Shafer, program coordinator with the physics and astronomy department and one of the advisory committee members for UK, found an article titled "Modern Astronomy, the Bible and Creation" on Gaskell's personal Web site. She circulated it to the rest of the committee.
The Web site contains essays in which Gaskell elaborates on his thoughts about the conflicts between evolutionists and creationists, including: "I believe that God has not yet revealed everything to us in the Bible (see Deuteronomy 29:29 and I Corinthians 13:9-10,12) and I know that we don't know all the answers in science yet."
He also wrote that the conflict between evolution and creationism is destructive to both sides.
" 'Creationists' attack the science of 'evolutionists.' I believe that this sort of attack is very bad both scientifically and theologically," he wrote. "The 'scientific' explanations offered by 'creationists' are mostly very poor science and I believe this sort of thing actually hinders some (many?) scientists becoming Christians. It is true that there are significant scientific problems in evolutionary theory ... but the real problem with humanistic evolution is in the unwarranted atheistic assumptions and extrapolations."
Barbara Kriz, an attorney for UK, contends the university is just one of 60 employers that rejected Gaskell for employment after he was terminated from his post at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Yet UK is the only employer Gaskell has sued for religious discrimination, according to a UK court filing.
Shafer described Gaskell as "complex and likely fascinating to talk with, but potentially evangelical." Gaskell referred to himself as "evangelical" in his deposition.
Thomas Troland, an astrophysicist who was chairman of the search committee, initially favored Gaskell and expressed dissatisfaction with the committee's movement toward Knauer in an Oct. 19, 2007, e-mail. He raised the issue of whether it was improper to consider "religious views" unrelated to the field of astronomy.
UK's court filing says Troland "wrote the e-mail outlining his concerns about the committee's deliberations in the heat of the moment, over his frustration that the other committee members did not share his high opinion of Gaskell."
Troland's deposition in the case said he no longer believed the committee acted against Gaskell based on religion when it considered him against the other two top candidates for the job.