The Case of the Christian Astronomer

Martin Gaskell is an astronomer who studies quasars. He's also a Christian who questions evolution. The University of Kentucky decided not to hire him at least partly because of his religious views. Now Gaskell's won a settlement over it. Good.

The University of Kentucky will pay Gaskell $125,000 to settle a religious discrimination suit he filed after they turned him down for a job as director of the UK observatory in 2007. Gaskell, a professor at the University of Nebraska, is very open about his Christian views: his favorite quote is "Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you," and he told a profiler at UN that "For me the joy of teaching courses like [Descriptive Astronomy] stems from my being a Christian and getting to explain something about God's Universe." Inside Higher Ed describes Gaskell's religious arguments (Update: Here's a link to one such paper) as an unrelated sideline to his astronomy work:

The bulk of Gaskell's published work addresses the technical aspects of black holes. But he also made a hobby of criticizing the prima facie dismissal of Biblical assertions as irrelevant to scientific theory, while advocating for a view of natural history that rejects neither the Judeo-Christian creation story nor evolution. In a document published on his personal website — which later became fodder for discussion among his would-be employers at Kentucky — Gaskell criticized both creationists and evolutionary scientists for perpetuating bad science.

A key point: no one appears to have challenged Gaskell's primary work in astronomy. No one alleged, for example, that any of his papers on quasars or black holes were compromised by his religious beliefs. Evolution vs. creationism is a question primarily of biology, not astronomy. The UK search committee considering Gaskell's hiring went and talked to the UK biology department, which raised some objections. Had Gaskell been applying for a job in biology, those objections would be relevant. But he wasn't. Furthermore, this email from a search committee member indicates that the mere possibility of bad PR—even if it was inaccurate—was enough to spook them:

The Case of the Christian Astronomer

Even if you believe in evolution and think Christians are essentially believers in myth (and why wouldn't you?), you should also be extremely wary of any tendency to make hiring decisions based on something other than qualifications for the job in question. The astronomer not hired for his religious beliefs today could easily be you tomorrow—not hired for a job you're qualified for because the search committee didn't like your taste in music, or fashion, or politics. It's tempting to say that biology and astronomy are both sciences, and therefore Gaskell's beliefs in both are fair game; but it's no more reasonable to rate an astronomer on his beliefs in biology and religion than it is to rate him on his beliefs in sociology, or political science. No Marxist economists allowed? No Rasta mathematicians? Academia would be subject to even more groupthink than it already is.

You can be our staff astronomer any time, Martin Gaskell. Just don't talk to us about anything other than quasars.