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Smithson: Internet search exposes ‘potentially evangelical’ applicant

You may not know of Martin Gaskell. He’s an American astronomer and university professor whose name became known in the employment world, recently, for launching a federal religious discrimination action against the University of Kentucky after it refused to hire him.

In 2007, Gaskell was far and away the leading candidate for the position of director of the university’s MacAdam Student Observatory.

His qualifications were variously described as “far above those of any other applicant,” “breathtakingly above the other applicants in background and experience,” and “superb.”

So, why didn’t he get the job? Because the university’s hiring committee conducted an Internet search and determined that Gaskell’s Christian faith, as expressed in his writings and presentations, didn’t fit with the scientific nature of the vacant position.

Gaskell’s views on the debate between evolutionary and creationist theory are what caught the attention of the university.

Although a scientist by trade, Gaskell has been critical of evolutionary theory. He has been quoted as saying things like: “There are significant scientific problems in evolutionary theory (a good thing or else many biologists and geologists would be out of a job).”

His writings resulted in him being labelled by the university as “something close to a creationist” and “potentially evangelical.”

Apparently, in a scientific university setting, having your own views about the validity of science’s explanation of the origins of the universe is unwelcome.

His claim against the university is a bit unusual in that it reverses the more typical religious-discrimination-in-employment sort of scenario.

That more frequent situation, captured in the 1925 trial of John Scopes in Tennessee (often referred to as the Scopes Monkey Trial), involves a person working in a religious setting who faces persecution for espousing scientific theory.

The Scopes trial pitted the forces of creationism and evolutionism against each other, with nothing short of the origins of the universe up for grabs.

The story started in March of 1925 with the Tennessee House of Representatives’ passage of the Butler Act.

The Butler Act made it unlawful, in any state-funded school, to teach any theory denying the biblical story of the divine creation of man and to assert that man is “descended from a lower order of animals.”

The American Civil Liberties Union quickly sought to finance a case to test the constitutionality of the Butler Act.

It found a willing participant in one John T. Scopes, a teacher at Clark County High School in Dayton, Tenn. Scopes was duly charged with having taught in class from a textbook chapter on evolution.

At the trial, the lead counsel (William Jennings Bryan for the pro-creationist prosecution, and Clarence Darrow for the pro-evolutionist defence) were political and legal giants of the time.

There was really no attempt by the defence to deny that Scopes had breached the Act. Darrow attempted to call as witnesses a series of experts on evolutionary theory to attack the literal interpretation of the Bible but this effort was frustrated.

As a result, he instead called Bryan (counsel for the prosecution) as a witness on the premise that Bryan was one of America’s foremost students of the Bible. This twist provided the trial with its most dramatic moments.

Typical of their clash was one skirmish, after the purpose of Darrow’s examination of Bryan was called into question.

Bryan: “The purpose is to cast ridicule on everybody who believes in the Bible, and I am perfectly willing that the world shall know that these gentlemen have no other purpose than ridiculing every Christian who believes in the Bible.”

Darrow: “We have the purpose of preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States, and you know it, and that is all.”

They squabbled about everything from the swallowing of Jonah by a whale to the likely impact of the Earth coming to a standstill, the date of the great flood, the age of the Earth, the origin of Cain’s wife, and the temptation of Eve by the serpent.

At best, the historic clash between Darrow and Bryan might be characterized a draw, but Scopes was ultimately found guilty and was fined $100.

The Butler Act was repealed in 1967. A year later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such statutes were unconstitutional.

Back to the present—Gaskell’s complaint against the University of Kentucky was scheduled for a hearing in February 2011.

But a funny thing happened along the way to the courthouse—the university paid him $125,000 to settle the matter, so we’ll never know whether his complaint would have been upheld after a hearing.

We do know that not all information an employer might locate on the Internet will be useful, or relevant  or even legal to consider in the course of hiring decisions.

Robert Smithson is a labour and employment lawyer, and operates Smithson Employment Law in Kelowna. This subject matter is provided for general informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.

www.smithsonlaw.ca

 

 

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