Univ. of Kentucky settles lawsuit from astronomer

An astronomy professor who sued the University of Kentucky after claiming he lost out on a top job because of his Christian beliefs reached a settlement Tuesday with the school.

An astronomy professor who sued the University of Kentucky after claiming he lost out on a top job because of his Christian beliefs reached a settlement Tuesday with the school.

The university agreed to pay $125,000 to Martin Gaskell in exchange for dropping a federal religious discrimination suit he filed in Lexington in 2009. A trial was set for next month.

Gaskell claimed he was passed over to be director of UK's MacAdam Student Observatory because of his religion and statements that were perceived to be critical of evolution.

Court records showed Gaskell was a front-runner for the job, but some professors called him "something close to a creationist" and "potentially evangelical" in interoffice e-mails to other university scientists.

"We never thought from the start that everybody at UK was some sort of anti-religious bigot," said Frank Manion, Gaskell's attorney. "However, what I do think this case disclosed is a kind of endemic, almost knee-jerk reaction in academia towards people, especially scientists, of a strong religious faith."

A statement from University of Kentucky counsel Barbara Jones Tuesday said the school's "hiring processes were and are fundamentally sound and were followed in this case." The university does not admit any wrongdoing.

"This successful resolution precludes what would have been a lengthy trial that, ultimately, would not have served anyone's best interests," Jones said in the statement.

Gaskell has said he is not "creationist," or someone who believes the Bible's origin story puts the age of the universe at a few thousand years. He also said his views on evolution are in line with biological science.

After applying for the job in 2007, Gaskell said he learned from a friend at UK that professors had discussed his purported religious views. E-mails turned over as evidence in the case showed that university scientists wondered if Gaskell's faith would interfere with the job, which included public outreach and education.

One astrophysics professor at UK told department chair Michael Cavagnero in an e-mail that hiring Gaskell would be a "huge public relations mistake."

Gaskell referred questions from a reporter Tuesday to Manion, a Kentucky lawyer with the American Center for Law & Justice, which focuses on religious freedom cases

Manion said documents and e-mail communications turned over by UK in the case showed strong evidence of religious bias, including a professor who surmised that Gaskell was "potentially evangelical."

"The fact that somebody could say that without realizing the implications, speaks volumes," Manion said. "Because all you have to do is substitute any other label — potentially Jewish, potentially Muslim. Nobody would say that."

Gaskell is currently working as a research fellow in the astronomy department at the University of Texas.

___

Associated Press Writer Brett Barrouquere contributed to this report.

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