December 19, 2010

HMM: Astronomer Sues the University of Kentucky, Claiming His Faith Cost Him a Job.

In 2007, C. Martin Gaskell, an astronomer at the University of Nebraska, was a leading candidate for a job running an observatory at the University of Kentucky. But then somebody did what one does nowadays: an Internet search. That search turned up evidence of Dr. Gaskell’s evangelical Christian faith.

The University of Kentucky hired someone else. And Dr. Gaskell sued the institution.

Whether his faith cost him the job and whether certain religious beliefs may legally render people unfit for certain jobs are among the questions raised by the case, Gaskell v. University of Kentucky.

Regardless, this will likely be a major millstone around the University of Kentucky’s neck as it tries to oppose budget cuts in a legislature whose constituents are far more likely to identify as Christians than as astronomers.

UPDATE: Reader Michelle Dulak Thompson writes:

It sounds as though Dr. Gaskell thinks all that business in Genesis about the universe arising ex nihilo in a great burst of light isn’t all a bunch of hooey. Self-evidently you can’t hire someone like that.

There’s this nagging recollection in the back of my mind, though, of some other astronomer or two having something of the same idea. Only the name they gave it is slipping me . . . Large Blast? Great Boom? Something like that.

Seriously, the Big Bang was controversial when first proposed precisely because it did look a little too much like the Genesis account for some people’s comfort. It looks that this guy’s difficulty with the search committee was less about astronomy than evolution — but since the job he was up for didn’t have anything to do with evolution, they had no business raising the subject. Do they also ask every applicant whether s/he believes in the Virgin Birth?

He says he believes in evolution. But what’s funny is that they didn’t want to hire him because they feared bad publicity. Oops. Now they’ve got an article in the New York Times saying that he wasn’t hired because they worried that he’s “potentially evangelical.” That’s going to play well. In Kentucky. When budgets are being cut anyway.

ANOTHER UPDATE: A reader emails:

Hi, Glenn,

Regarding your post on Martin Gaskell, the astrophysicist who’s suing the University of Kentucky, I actually know him professionally, and we’re both in the same Christian Astronomers group. He’s a serious scientist (most of our conversations have been on our field of quasars and galaxy evolution), and even his religious opinions are perfectly mainstream. Mainstream not only for the country in general, but even among religious scientists. He’s absolutely not any Young Earth Creationist, for example.

What makes me really scratch my head about U. Kentucky’s search committee is that the “lecture” they dug up online (I gather it’s this one: incolor.inetnebr.com/gaskell/Martin_Gaskell_Bible_Astronomy.html ) is his way of explaining to religious non-scientists that they don’t have to hold to a literal six-day interpretation of Genesis 1, and they don’t have to reject modern science on this score. He covers the wide variety of orthodox interpretations of Genesis, and then he shows how various findings of astrophysics could correspond to the statements in the verses. It’s *exactly* the kind of talk many of my colleagues and I have given to Sunday school classes. It’s pretty standard stuff, in that sense. It’s scientific outreach to religious groups, and these talks are even something the National Science Foundation is encouraging. (I just saw some email discussion of that today.)

A funny idea just came to me: His science is on solid ground among astronomers, and the *only* place there’s any room for quibbling might be in whether one thinks he’s interpreted Scripture correctly, considering the variety of opinions there. Does the University of Kentucky want to put itself in the role of judging religious orthdoxy in their hiring decisions?

If my Sunday school presentations (not anything I do in my research or in the classroom) are grounds for rejecting me for a job, then thank goodness I’ve gotten tenure, and I hope I don’t have to change jobs for a long time.

Sincerely,
Tim Hamilton
Assoc. Prof. of Physics
Shawnee State University

Good grief. They told me if I voted Republican, University scientists would be vetted for religious orthodoxy — and they were right!

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