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Abraham's test

Science | A prestigious research lab faces a $500,000 lawsuit after firing a Christian biologist for not accepting Darwinism

Issue: "The plots thicken," Jan. 12, 2008

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."

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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."

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