Nathaniel Abraham left India and moved to the United States in 1997 to pursue science. He studied biology at St. John's University in New York, where he earned his master's degree and doctorate. He developed expertise in toxicology and developmental biology pertaining to zebrafish. His academic rigor and top-notch research skills advanced his career quickly, landing him a job in 2004 at the prestigious Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.
By every indication, Abraham had realized his American dream: a job in the field he loved, an employer eager to sponsor a new visa, a sense of financial security, and a wife pregnant with his first child. But that happy season lasted only several months, until Woods Hole decided that Abraham's Christian faith, with its belief in God as Creator, disqualified him from serious scientific inquiry. The institution fired its new employee just before Christmas for not subscribing to Darwinian evolution.
"We were thrown pretty much out on the streets after that. I didn't have a job, and it was the worst period of our lives," Abraham told WORLD. "We were wandering from place to place. We couldn't pay rent, so we lost our apartment and were staying at different friends' houses."
The young couple determined that such a nomadic lifestyle combined with a lack of proper health care was no arrangement in which to have a child. Abraham sent his wife back home to India, while he raced against the clock to find a new job before his old visa expired. He missed the birth of his daughter but found work at Liberty University, allowing his family to return to the states.
Confused and upset at the treatment he'd received, Abraham filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD). Could an employer, especially one that receives considerable federal funding, require an employee to deny a basic tenet of his faith under threat of termination? MCAD dismissed that challenge, arguing that it possessed insufficient evidence to determine whether Woods Hole had committed "an unlawful act of discrimination."
Disheartened by that ruling, Abraham turned to the Christian Law Association (CLA), a nonprofit firm that defends churches and Christians from unfair treatment. In December, he filed a $500,000 lawsuit against Woods Hole, seeking damages for wrongful termination. More important than the money, Abraham says, is the opportunity to determine precedent for other Christian scientists who may face similar opposition.
The case, not scheduled to reach trial until 2009, raises important questions about the field of biology and the limits of anti-discrimination laws. Can a biologist perform high-level scientific study without accepting the academically dominant theory of evolution? Shouldn't an organization be free to employ only those workers who subscribe to its stated mission?
David Gibbs III, general counsel of CLA (who also represented the family of Terri Schiavo), believes the answer to both questions is yes. He contends that Abraham's creationist view in no way hindered his work at Woods Hole and therefore was not in conflict with the institution's scientific agenda: "We've had, over the years, many great scientists who adhere to intelligent design, creationism, or other theories besides evolution. Dr. Abraham was willing to write, analyze, and deal with the data in any manner asked of him, including evolutionary theory. If so directed, he would do what he was told to do."
But Abraham never had that chance. The issue of his belief in creationism did not arise due to objections over anything he'd written or the conclusions of his research. Nor did it stem from any refusal to follow direction: That never came up in the regular course of Abraham's work.
His boss, Woods Hole senior scientist Mark Hahn, might never have learned of Abraham's views had he not volunteered them in a passing comment at the end of what had been an otherwise agreeable meeting. In the wake of that revelation, everything changed. Hahn's appreciative and laudatory tone became critical and demanding.
In a follow-up meeting, Hahn challenged Abraham to explain why he even cared to study zebrafish if they offer no evolutionary insight into the biological functions of higher organisms, such as human beings. Abraham responded with an analogy: "If I wanted to know how the engine of a propeller plane aircraft, or a boat, or an automobile worked, all I'd have to do is open the engine of a motorbike and I'd have a pretty good idea of how everything else worked. Just because they all have a certain plan, doesn't mean that the motorbike is an ancestor of the car. I don't think God needed to reinvent the wheel every single time. Just because certain animals share a heart or similar parts, that has nothing to do with whether one was an ancestor to the other."
Abraham followed that explanation with an email assuring his boss that were the issue of evolution ever to arise in a research paper, he would willingly discuss implications of zebrafish behavior and anatomy according to Darwinian theory. Hahn was not satisfied: In a Nov. 17, 2004, letter asking Abraham to resign, Hahn explained that a lack of belief in evolution "is incompatible with the work" for which Woods Hole received its federal grant from the National Institutes of Health. Hahn further contended in the letter that Abraham should have known that acceptance of evolution was central to the position before he ever applied.
Hahn communicated that if Abraham could not accept the reality of evolution, he should step down from his position. When Abraham refused, Woods Hole fired him.
Such academic intolerance toward skeptics of Darwinism is nothing new. Iowa State University denied tenure to noted astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez last spring due to his support for intelligent design. The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History launched a smear campaign against biologist Richard Sternberg in 2004 after he agreed to publish an ID-supporting paper in a prestigious peer-reviewed journal.
But in both of those instances, and most others where Darwin doubters have faced opposition, the discriminating organizations trumped up performance criticisms or procedural violations in an effort to conceal their bias. This case is different in that Woods Hole has made no attempt to hide the motives for its decision. At Abraham's hearing before MCAD, Woods Hole publicly defended its right to require belief in evolution from all of its employees.
Such absence of obfuscation renders Abraham's lawsuit a pure test of the legal balance between religious liberty and employer prerogative. Churches and religious organizations have long defended their exemption from anti-discrimination laws, which ban employers from considering such factors as race, gender, or religion in hiring decisions. But Woods Hole is no religious institution. It is a government-funded research lab required to maintain a policy of equal opportunity employment.
Woods Hole public information manager Stephanie Murphy responded to WORLD's request for comment on the case with the institution's prepared statement, which contends that its actions against Abraham "were entirely lawful" and that it remains committed "to make reasonable accommodation for religious observance and practices."
In the wake of Abraham's lawsuit, Darwinists have rushed to Woods Hole's defense. P.Z. Meyers, author of the popular pro-evolution blog Pharyngula, called Abraham a "slack-jawed creationist" and wrote that his denial of evolution is akin "to showing up in a fish lab and announcing that he didn't like to get his hands wet." Meyers and other Darwinists argue that biological science is impossible without evolution.
But Abraham contends that the matter never came up in his application for the job for the same reason it never came up over the course of his Woods Hole duties: "The project had nothing to do with evolution."
"He was ready to continue doing exactly what he'd been hired to do," Gibbs told WORLD. "But he ran into this religious-like passion where you're not even a scientist if you don't believe in evolution."