Friday, December 07, 2007
The Other Guy's Court
A new legal front has opened in the attacks by creationists against academic science. Having failed to get Intelligent Design into grade and high school curricula, the focus seems to have shifted to the university level -- not by way of any serious attempt to get it taught as science at the college level but, rather, a seemingly concerted effort to portray universities and academics as biased materialists and atheists. Joining the Guillermo Gonzalez tenure case and the upcoming Ben Stein alternate reality epic, Expelled, is the Federal lawsuit brought by Nathaniel Abraham, a former postdoctoral researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, alleging he was improperly fired from his job because of his religious beliefs, in violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Law.
According to a story in the Boston Globe, in March of 2004 Abraham was hired to work in the laboratory of Mark E. Hahn.
In October 2004, both agree, Abraham made a passing comment to Hahn saying he did not believe in evolution. ...As would be expected, a copy of Abraham's Complaint in the District Court that I obtained tells a different story. The following are the crucial factual allegations:
"My supervisor appeared angry and asked me what I meant," Abraham wrote in a 2005 complaint he filed with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. "My supervisor and I had a follow up meeting during which my supervisor informed me that if I do not believe in evolution, then he was paying me for only 7 to 10 percent of the work I was doing under the grant."
Abraham said he told Hahn he would do extra work to compensate and "was willing to discuss evolution as a theory."
In a 2004 letter to Abraham ... Hahn wrote that Abraham said he did not want to work on "evolutionary aspects" of the National Institutes of Health grant for which he was hired, even though the project clearly required scientists to use the principles of evolution in their analyses and writing. ...
On Nov. 17, Hahn asked him to resign, pointing out in the letter that Abraham should have known of evolution's centrality to the project because it was evident from the job advertisement and grant proposal.
". . . You have indicated that you do not recognize the concept of biological evolution and you would not agree to include a full discussion of the evolutionary implications and interpretations of our research in any co-authored publications resulting from this work," Hahn wrote in the letter ... "This position is incompatible with the work as proposed to NIH and with my own vision of how it should be carried out and interpreted."
8. Plaintiff, as a Bible-believing Christian, accepts the Holy Bible to be the Word of God and hence infallible.An adverse employment action based on a person's religious beliefs is prohibited (with exceptions not relevant here) "unless an employer demonstrates that he is unable to reasonably accommodate to an employee's or prospective employee's religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer's business."
9. As a Christian, the Plaintiff believes, pursuant to the teachings of the Holy Bible, that God created the Heavens and the Earth.
10. Plaintiff does not acknowledge evolution as an undisputed scientific fact, but rather as a scientific theory.
11. Plaintiff responded to a posting on Defendant Hahn's website for a postdoctoral position at WHOI requiring expertise in zebrafish developmental biology and toxicology.
12. While the job posting listed in detail the educational and professional qualifications needed, no reference to any unqualified acceptance by job applicants of the theory of evolution as scientific fact was mentioned.
13. Plaintiff applied and was hired by Defendants in March 2004, due to his exceptional qualifications as a zebrafish developmental biologist and specific expertise in programmed cell death, to work in the environmental toxicology lab of Defendant Hahn ("Hahn Lab"') at WHOI.
14. The Defendants' Hahn lab is largely funded by federal grants from the National Institutes of Health ("NIH"), an agency in the United States Department of Health and Human Services.
15. There is no requirement in the NTH grant that grantees or their agents accept or endorse the theory of evolution as scientific fact.
16. Plaintiff's work with Defendants focused on zebrafish developmental biology, toxicology and programmed cell death areas of research which require no acceptance, or application of, the theory of evolution as scientific fact.
17. Plaintiff at all times, before his employment began while helping to design and construct the lab and during his employment, performed exemplary work and was often praised and commended by Defendant and other staff members for the quality of his research, commitment and scientific presentations.
18. After his employment commenced with Defendants Hahn and WHOI, in a passing conversation with Defendant Hahn, Plaintiff mentioned he was Christian and that his faith proscribes his personal acceptance and belief in the theory of evolution as scientific fact.
19. Shortly after this conversation, Defendants began to unlawfully impose on Plaintiff, as a condition of his remaining employed by Defendants, a requirement that he accept the theory of evolution as scientific fact.
20. Plaintiff assured Defendants that he was willing to analyze aspects of his research using evolutionary concepts if warranted (as Defendant Hahn himself done in his previous publications), but his sincerely held religious belief did not allow him to accept the theory of evolution as scientific fact.
21. As noted previously, the focus of Plaintiffs work was to center around zebrafish developmental biology, toxicology and programmed cell death, not the theory of evolution or evolutionary principles.
22. Instead of agreeing to accommodate Plaintiff's religious needs. which would impose no undue hardship on any party or negatively impact the research performed by the Hahn Lab, Defendants continued to discriminate against Plaintiff due to his sincerely held Christian beliefs.
23. After continued religious discrimination, intimidation and unsuccessful attempts to force Plaintiff's resignation, Defendants fired Plaintiff.
It is hard to believe that Abraham didn't know he was expected to work within evolutionary theory or that it was an important part of any work at the lab. Hahn's website as it exists now certainly makes it clear:
The overall objective of research in our laboratory is to understand the biochemical and molecular mechanisms that underlie the interactions of marine animals with their chemical environment. Our general approach is to examine these mechanisms from a comparative/evolutionary perspective, in order to understand the fundamental features of chemical action and provide a broader understanding of how these ligand-receptor pathways function ...And, in any event, as Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education said in the Globe article:
It is inconceivable that someone working in developmental biology at a major research institution would not be expected to deal intimately with evolution. A flight school hiring instructors wouldn't ask whether they accepted that the earth was spherical; they would assume it. Similarly, Woods Hole would have assumed that someone hired to work in developmental biology would accept that evolution occurred. It's part and parcel of the science these days.On the other hand, if Abraham's work was so intimately entangled in evolutionary theory and no reasonable accommodation can be made to his beliefs, it is hard to understand how he could work there, apparently satisfactorily, for seven months without the subject causing any problem until it arose in casual conversation.
It is too early in the process to know how this will play out. All the facts will have to come out before any considered opinion can be given on the legal issues. But the timing couldn't have been better for the public relations campaign being waged by the creationists. So much so, that a more suspicious person than I might think it wasn't coincidence.
It's not hard to understand. The clue is in this clause from Hahn's letter:
" ... you [Abraham] would not agree to include a full discussion of the evolutionary implications and interpretations of our research in any co-authored publications resulting from this work,"
If, as is likely, Abraham as a beginning post-doc was doing basic experimental dogwork, carrying out lab procedures, it would not be until the work was being pulled together for publication that the evolutionary interpretations would become salient and Abraham's reservations would have become apparent.
Yes, I can see that as possible but Abraham is alleging that his part in the overall work didn't require him to do those interpretations -- presumably that would have been the work of the other authors. And if he refused to put his name on a paper (if that was what he was doing) that had evolutionary interpretations in it, how does that constitute "undue hardship on the conduct of the employer's business"?
In any event, Abraham seems to be denying that he refused to "analyze aspects of his research using evolutionary concepts."
Note that I'm not taking any position on this -- I'm just doing what lawyers do: analyzing possible scenerios as a framework for looking at the evidence as it comes in. Say, don't scientists have something like that? ...
And Ferrous, don't worry about that ... we have some nice milk to wash it down ...