Creationist Says Lab Fired Him for His Beliefs

A scientist is suing the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, saying he was fired from his job at the prestigious lab because he does not believe in the theory of evolution. Woods Hole says believing in evolution was part of the job description.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

One thing that makes da Vinci's appeal so universal is that we're still wrestling with the question of whether nature can never really be understood by science alone. Now, the battle of evolution versus creationism has moved beyond the classroom to a new front - the laboratory.

A former scientist at the prestigious Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution says he was fired from his research position because he's a Christian and doesn't believe in evolution. Sean Corcoran has the story.

SEAN CORCORAN: A few weeks before Christmas in 2004, biologist Nathaniel Abraham received a letter from his supervisor at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, informing him that he was to be terminated from his job as a post-doctoral investigator. The letter read, quote, "the fact that you do not recognize the concept of biological evolution means you are unable to be a full intellectual participant in this research, a requirement for any post-doctoral investigator," end quote. Abraham's attorney, David Gibbs, of the Florida-based Christian Law Foundation, said the letter was a reaction to an earlier discussion Abraham had with his boss.

Mr. DAVID GIBBS (Lawyer, Christian Law Foundation): One day in casual conversation, Dr. Nathaniel Abraham, mentions to his boss that he believed in creationism - that he didn't totally buy evolution, but that he thought God or a higher being was involved in the origins of the universe as we know it.

Unbelievably, after he made that casual comment to his supervisor, the supervisor began to pressure him to change his beliefs. And when he realized that Dr. Abraham would not do that, to resign and leave the institution.

CORCORAN: Now, Abraham is seeking a half-million dollars in a discrimination suit against Woods Hole. The institution is not commenting beyond releasing a statement that says it firmly believes its actions were entirely lawful. Documents show that when Abraham appealed his dismissal to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, Woods Hole argued that accepting evolution was a bona fide job qualification. And the commission agreed, writing in its decision that the research project Abraham was working on required him to interpret his results from an evolutionary perspective. That requirement was even laid out in the job ad. Gibbs acknowledges that Abraham, who is an Indian citizen, never expressed his doubt about evolution during the hiring process but nor did he think he had to.

Mr. GIBBS: He had no idea that in the United States of America, he would run into this wall of an acceptance that believe evolution or we don't want you. And I think, probably, the question that a lot of people want to somehow think is that if you don't believe evolution, you don't believe science. The reality is evolution takes as mush faith as creationism. You cannot prove either one.

CORCORAN: But Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California, which monitors the creationism versus evolution controversy, says evolution is not a faith statement. It's a statement of evidence. And Scott also is not surprised Abraham was never asked if he accepts biological evolution before he was offered the job because it would have been assumed.

Ms. EUGENIE SCOTT (Executive Director, National Center for Science Education): I mean, it'd be sort of like a flight instructor school interviewing a candidate - do you accept that the Earth is spherical. I mean, you know, in evolutionary biology, evolution is such a basic part of the field that you would just assume somebody applying for a post-doctoral fellowship would be working within the standard paradigm.

CORCORAN: Scientific institutes have every right, Scott says, to require that their biologist accept evolution. And creationists have a very small role to play in biological labs.

Ms. SCOTT: Well, I'm sure there are some jobs that you can do in a laboratory that don't involve evolution. I mean, you can wash test tubes and you can do very routine kinds of machine rounds and so forth. But that's not why you hire a post-doc.

CORCORAN: What's unclear from the court documents is whether or not Abraham, as a creationist, was willing or even capable of interpreting his research results using evolutionary principles, as the project required. It's also not clear whether his boss offered him the opportunity to do so. The courts will have to sort through that issue. And while the suit makes it way through the federal courts, Abraham has moved on. He's now teaching at Liberty University - a Christian school in Virginia - where he is an associate professor of biology.

For NPR News, I'm Sean Corcoran in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

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