University of Kentucky sees the light in ‘evangelical’ row

Freya Berry 27 January 2011

The University of Kentucky has been forced to pay a $125,000 settlement to the “evangelical” astrophysicist Martin Gaskell, after denying him the post of Observatory Director in 2007.

After researching Gaskell’s religious beliefs, Michael Cavagnero, the Chairman of the Physics and Astronomy department revealed what he called Gaskell’s “potentially evangelical” views on creationism and intelligent design. Canagnero reiterated that in a public talk Gaskell made insidious and inaccurate comments about atheism and evolutionary theory. He concluded that “while a talented astronomer, Dr Gaskell is a lousy biologist”

However, regarding Cavagnero’s “potentially evangelical” comment, Dr Gaskell’s lawyer, Francis J. Manion, said: “I couldn’t have made up a better quote. ‘We like this guy, but he is potentially Jewish? Potentially Muslim?'”

Federal law prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion. In the UK, the Education Reform Act 1988 ensures that “academic staff have freedom within the law to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions.”

Professor Gill Evans, Emeritus professor of Medieval Theology, told The Cambridge Student that if there was a similarly controversial lecturer at Cambridge, she believed it would simply lead to “energetic exchange with students.” She added that “if the University tried to sack him, the state of the law on discrimination in this area would be interesting to test.”

In 1997, Chris Brand of Edinburgh University, and a self-styled “scientific racist”, was dismissed after a university tribunal found him guilty of gross misconduct. However, he later sued the university on grounds of unfair dismissal and received £12,000 in an out-of-court settlement.

Freya Berry