In 2007, C. Martin Gaskell, an astronomer at the University of Nebraska, was a leading candidate for a job running an observatory at the University of Kentucky. But then somebody did what one does nowadays: an Internet search. That search turned up evidence of Dr. Gaskell’s evangelical Christian faith.
The University of Kentucky hired someone else. And Dr. Gaskell sued the institution.
Whether his faith cost him the job and whether certain religious beliefs may legally render people unfit for certain jobs are among the questions raised by the case, Gaskell v. University of Kentucky.
In late November, a federal judge in Kentucky ruled that the case could go forward, and a trial is scheduled for February. The case represents a rare example, experts say, of a lawsuit by a scientist who alleges academic persecution for his religious faith.
Both sides agree that Dr. Gaskell, 57, was invited to the university, in Lexington, for a job interview. In his lawsuit, he says that at the end of the interview, Michael Cavagnero, the chairman of the physics and astronomy department, asked about his religious beliefs.
“Cavagnero stated that he had personally researched Gaskell’s religious beliefs,” the lawsuit says. According to Dr. Gaskell, the chairman said Dr. Gaskell’s religious beliefs and his “expression of them would be a matter of concern” to the dean.
Federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, so interviewers typically do not ask about an applicant’s faith. Depositions and e-mails submitted as evidence suggest why Dr. Cavagnero may have raised the issue with Dr. Gaskell.
For the plaintiff, the smoking gun is an e-mail dated Sept. 21, 2007, from a department staff member, Sally A. Shafer, to Dr. Cavagnero and another colleague. Ms. Shafer wrote that she did an Internet search on Dr. Gaskell and found links to his notes for a lecture that explores, among other topics, how the Bible could relate to contemporary astronomy.
“Clearly this man is complex and likely fascinating to talk with,” Ms. Shafer wrote, “but potentially evangelical. If we hire him, we should expect similar content to be posted on or directly linked from the department Web site.”