Creationist views not welcome at California State U

An open young earth creationist claims he was fired for religious discrimination after he got legitimate work publishing in a journal. Or, his very anti-science ideas were simply not appropriate for promotion within an academic institution.

University sued after firing creationist fossil hunter.

In May 2012, Mark Armitage made a discovery that he had dreamed of for years. While digging in Montana, he uncovered one of the largest triceratops horns ever found in the Hell Creek Formation, a legendary stack of fossil-bearing rocks that date to the last days of the dinosaurs.

In February 2013, he published his findings in Acta Histochemica, a journal of cell and tissue research (M. H. Armitage and K. L. Anderson Acta Histochem. 115, 603–608; 2013). Two weeks later, he was fired from his job at California State University, Northridge (CSUN), where he managed the biology department’s electron and confocal microscopy suite.

Now he is embroiled in a long-shot legal fight to get his job back. In July, his lawyers filed a wrongful-termination suit claiming that religious intolerance motivated the dismissal: as a young-Earth creationist, Armitage says that finding soft tissue in the fossil supports his belief that such specimens date to the time of the biblical flood, which he puts at about 4,000 years ago.

Armitage admits that he shares his view that dinosaurs are relatively young with his student. He believes that soft-tissue preservation of dinosaur fossils are an obvious clue that they are young. But this conclusion based on a potential misinterpretation and the other poor quality evidence that Creationists use to justify their religious beliefs is a clear indication that Armitage chose the wrong career – science.

His lawyer claims: “Terminating an employee because of their religious views is completely inappropriate and illegal, but doing so in an attempt to silence scientific speech at a public university is even more alarming. This should be a wakeup call and warning to the entire world of academia.”

This is off the mark. Creationist views are NOT science and Creation-based beliefs are clearly religious and do not have a place in public universities or any science curriculum. It may be a nuanced view regarding academic freedom that people just can not grasp. But there is a justifiable conclusion that this world view is not appropriate for science education.

There was no hiding that he held these views and perhaps his employer assumed he would stick to the job at hand. It does not appear that his chances are good to prove he was unlawfully terminated. While the school may not have handled this well, they have a right to terminate employees whose goals are in contrast to their own.

  20 comments for “Creationist views not welcome at California State U

  1. November 5, 2014 at 2:20 PM

    In California at least, employers actually do not have a legal right to terminate an employee whose, “goals are in contrast to their own,” if their contrasting goals are based on legal activities outside the workplace or their political and religious beliefs, which are protected by California law.

    If he worked in another department, it might be a cut-and-dry example of the violation of California’s employment anti-discrimination laws. In this case, I think the issues will come down to:

    1) Did his activities while in a paid status on his employers’ property constitute a substantial burden on the employer that could not be accommodated? This could be the case since evolution is an essential part of the curriculum and the employer could show proof that his activity was actually causing them harm.

    2) Did his employer document the behavior and give him a chance to correct it, the same as any other employee?

    3) Is there any evidence that his firing was motivated by the beliefs he held or how he behaved outside of work rather than his actual behavior while he was in a paid status at work?

    I am not an expert on labor-law, but California has significant protections for religious and political beliefs and he has a much greater chance of winning a case here than in less labor-friendly States. It seems like his employer is arguing that he was never fired but rather simply that he was hired to fill a temporary position which was no longer needed.

    The fact is, if the employer came out and said, “we fired you because you believed in creationism and talked about it occasionally at work,” he might have a strong case in California. If they are saying, “you were hired for what was advertised as a temporary position which is no longer needed,” they have good legal cover. It is often the case that, due to strict labor laws, employers are rarely honest about the real reasons people are terminated or passed over for hiring. He may have been fired for being a creationist, but if he cannot prove it, he will probably lose the case. If the position really was temporary, then it becomes much harder to prove it because the employer might not need to prove that they had a valid reason for terminating him.

  2. Geoff
    November 5, 2014 at 3:19 PM

    I read the abstract and it had nothing in it that was YEC. It looked otherwise like valid science. Why was he fired? He’s not a professor. He’s manages a microscopy lab.

  3. chemical
    November 5, 2014 at 3:39 PM

    What is missing from the nature.com article is why the university decided to fire Armitage. It just says that he published his soft tissue findings in a scientific journal and then was fired two weeks later. Seems like a post hoc fallacy here, claiming one event caused the other when they’re actually not related.

    So why did the university decide to fire Armitage? The nature.com article doesn’t claim the published research was bad in any way or attempting to advance his creationist beliefs. I’d wager one dollar that it was because he was proselytising to the rest of the biology department, which you can be legally fired for.

    Also, depending on why the university fired Armitage, I don’t see how they could have handled it differently. He was hired to operate a microscope, which has was qualified to do. The university couldn’t choose to not hire him based on his religious beliefs, because that is against the law.

  4. Mr B
    November 5, 2014 at 4:00 PM

    Thought I had heard of this guy before. Skepticblog covered it two months ago
    http://www.skepticblog.org/2014/09/04/a-creationist-mole-and-a-sorry-mess/

  5. Colonel Tom
    November 5, 2014 at 5:13 PM

    Having had a run in with the California system a few decades ago, they will likely need to show cause for the dismissal. If just being a jerk was grounds for dismissal in California, many of my co-researchers would have been long gone. Nor does is being a Creationist necessarily unknown in similar fields. One of my professors who was an excellent researcher in bio-impacts (think car accidents and football helmets) was an irritating believer in a young whatzit. While I can’t understand his ability to provide synthesis of certain aspects of the origin of various attributes of the human mechanics, his work was well respected and well published.

    The survival of soft tissue in bone of that age, hardly can be called a fossil, is a truly amazing find. While Ost cells are to a large degree embedded in the bone matrix, there are mechanism for transport through the matrix. The channels that allowed transport of nutrients etc during life would be the route for most to suspect that complete replacement would have occurred during the years. To find non-replaced material, I find mind boggling. Yet, while I might know a bit about living bones I’m unqualified say it is impossible.

    I found a Mammoth molar a number of years ago at Big Bone State park, alas being Commonwealth property I turned it over to park employees. It had non-replaced matrix, but likely no one tried to do DNA extraction.

  6. Kurt
    November 5, 2014 at 6:30 PM

    I think if you found legitimate soft tissue in a triceratops skeleton, you’d be getting promotions. Though this begs a questions here: how is it that we find lots of soft tissue mammoths running around but not any dinosaurs? We have dinosaur fossils from plenty of cold areas and yet none are frozen or young enough to have skin on them. If this YEC timeline is accurate, they’d all have gone extinct in less than 10,000 years, so we should find much more complete fossils and frozen tyrannosaurs floating around. And when I drive an hour down the street, why haven’t they pulled any pteradons out of the tar pits? Clearly, if the earth is that young then they’d all have been around together, visiting the same tar pits.

  7. Colonel Tom
    November 5, 2014 at 6:51 PM

    Kurt, I think that is an excellent argument to presented to any Young Earth whatzit, Dinosaurs are not found at our salt springs, with the permafrost specimens, or the tar pits. Nor are mammals pulled out of the coal beds. The amber samples contain dinosaur feathers if produced by trees of the right age, and mammalian hair in the younger forests.

    My “cocktail party quip” is to make the point that to believe in a young earth would require that you believe in a Loki-type god that deliberately misleads and tricks people with false evidence and whimsical disregard. That quip tends to irk both secular and religious friends, but such is my role in life.

  8. One Eyed Jack
    November 5, 2014 at 10:13 PM

    Is there an official name for this persecution complex that so many YEC lament about? Any time a YEC gets fired for bad scientific work, they cry religious persecution. I seriously wonder if it has something to do with a desire to be like Christ. They want their turn on the cross. Is Crucifixion Complex taken?

  9. MisterNeutron
    November 5, 2014 at 11:10 PM

    Someone once commented that God puts fossils into the ground in order to lead paleontologists to sin.

  10. Colonel Tom
    November 6, 2014 at 3:34 PM

    One Eyed Jack, what evidence do you have that he was fired for bad scientific work? While only a fanatic would not understand that most of these articles are being written/planted by those that have their pseudo-religious agenda, aka giving one side of the story, I don’t see anything in the published side of this story that indicates he was not competent in his job. Just being an arse is not enough. Had he been a biology instructor, like my daughter’s teacher, it might be a different case. (Yes, I am stuck with my daughter’s teacher, grumble) .

    Now, because it was a “contract” position he’ll likely not have a case, but I would love to think that there is no religious testing allowed for employment, even at the Ark Park.

  11. Ryan
    November 6, 2014 at 4:47 PM

    Ah I was just looking for where I’d read up on this recently. The story has been burbling since just a bit after Armitage was fired last year. He wasn’t a professor, didn’t have students, and isn’t credentialed for the topics at hand. He’s a microscope tech. Basically a guy the University hired to maintain the equipment the actual scientist used. IIRC his position was part time and contract based to begin with. Apparently the University actually fired him because he was credential mongering. Touting his connection to CSU to bolster his claims of expertise and garner attention for his creationist pseudoscience, representing himself as a researcher or professor there when he wasn’t among other things. That’s a legitimate problem so they either let him go or chose not to re-up his contract I never figured out which.

  12. Ryan
    November 6, 2014 at 5:10 PM

    We find lots of mammoth soft tissue because they aren’t fossils. They’re mummies. Preserved soft tissue vs hard structures impregnated or replaced with rock. The Mammoths are frozen or dried. The dinosaurs have rotted out and had their bones turned to stone. The difference is in time scale and medium of preservation. Dinosaurs are mostly found in sedimentary rock, and in general even when younger critters are found in the same they fossilize in the same way as dinosaurs did. Soft tissue rots out, get encased in sediment. Add time, pressure, and heat. The bones mineralise. The mammoths with soft tissue mostly preserved in ways that preserve soft tissue from the offing in a way fossilization doesn’t. Encased in ice and tundra, dehydrated in a desert and buried in sand, etc. But on dinosaur time scales things can’t be preserved that way. Which is why we get dinosaur “mummies” where none of the actual tissue is present. The preserved soft structures undergo the same fossilization as the bones. Minerals infiltrate, replace, and encase them. The organic matter breaks down and you get super awesome impressions of skin and feathers. Or hard, mineral concretions shaped like organs and poop.

    Though there have been a number of largely legit findings of soft tissue with in the crunchy shell of Dino fossils. Inside certain large bones, under very specific conditions moist-ish, spongy, biological tissues have been found. The debate though isn’t whether this makes dinosaurs more recent than we expected thus proving the bible, but whether this is original preserved tissue from the animal or a sort of biofilm that comes from else where. Like bacteria infiltrating the bones/fossils later. The base idea is that once the exterior of the bone is fossilized, it is thereby sealed. So you’ve got a sealed container than can preserve any soft tissues there provided they don’t also get turned to stone. As far as I know noone’s firmly established that this creamy center is DEFINITELY original dinosaur tissue though. Its just something creationists seem to be mimicking, taking as confirmed truth, and twisting to their own ends.

  13. Bill T.
    November 10, 2014 at 12:50 PM

    You understand that there’s a difference in age of about two orders of magnitude between Pleistocene mammal fossils and Cretaceous dinosaur fossils?

    I have read reports that the reason he claims for dismissal is specious, he was terminated for mosrepresentation of credentials, certainly a valid reason for termination.

  14. Bill T.
    November 10, 2014 at 12:52 PM

    Yes, it’s a “Persecution Complex”. You’re welcome, always happy to be of help.

  15. Bill T.
    November 10, 2014 at 12:56 PM

    Why would you believe that there would be no religious testing allowed at the Ark Park? Here’s an anlaogy, surely you accept that religious credentials would need to be validated to be a pastor of a church?

    There’s solid reason to believe, that whinging to the contrary, the reason for his termination were not his religious beliefs.

  16. Colonel Tom
    November 11, 2014 at 4:11 PM

    Bill T. I lived in Grant County. Many of my friends hope to gain a good bit of green if the Ark Park is built, a good friend that I’ve worked will be doing the storm water plan. However, they present themselves as a public business, and are subject to the same rules as The Little Shrimp, Southern States or Food Lion. A public business that discriminates based on religion is not eligible for the government incentive package.

    I would ask what solid reason you have to believe that his termination not based upon religious beliefs?

  17. Bill T.
    November 12, 2014 at 11:01 AM

    Your point about denial of government incentives to a business that discriminates on the basis of religion appears to be well taken. On a somewhat different slant, you don’t believe that they won’t manufacture a reason to avoid hiring someone that doesn’t conform to their ideas, or if they learn that someone they had hired that they wouldn’t manufacture a reason to get rid of them?

    In regards to his alleged dismissal for cause, there is not a lot of explict information to go on, and yes, you are correct to question my statement about “solid evidence”. I was largely working from memory, a dangerous prctice for me at any time.

    As far as that goes, I probably should state a disclaimer, I don’t care if he was fired for religous reasons, his self-admitted proselityzing has no place in the Cal State Universities.

    I forgot to ask you on your original, you’re accusing unnamed folks of promoting a “pseudo-religous agenda”. What people and what agenda would that be?

  18. Colonel Tom
    November 12, 2014 at 5:33 PM

    In this case, the “pseudo-religious agenda” would be the Young Earth Creationist and the whole Ark Park bunch. The Young Earth, aka God is a liar, sect does not deserve to be called a religion. Almost all of articles that I could find on this subject were from the “oh look at us poor believers, them secular humanist are really out to get us” camp, I saw no balanced articles or articles from the opposite side on this issue.

    Since I start from a far different view point and cultural background than the average participant here, I see I should make more effort to define my terms. While the doubtfullnews staff branded this “psuedoscience” I personally also see it as “psuedoreligion”.

    Perhaps it is based upon my culture and our history, but I hardly like the idea of anyone being fired for his belief system, no matter how wrong, unless it comes into direct contact with a person’s job. If you were to fire him, why would a fundamentalist not have a right to fire any employee that spoke of their atheist viewpoint?

  19. Bill T.
    November 13, 2014 at 11:23 AM

    Thanks for the clarification, it’s not what I assumed you meant, but I didn’t assume that you meant what I assumed, or something like that, so it definitely helps me understand what you’re trying to say.

    It’s not so much for their beliefs, it’s about espousing beliefs counter to the goals of the institution. If one of the guides at the Ark Park started pointing out where main-stream geology differed from their presentations, the guide wouldn’t last long.

  20. Colonel Tom
    November 13, 2014 at 7:48 PM

    If a guide at the Ark Park was not doing his job, than it would certainly be grounds for dismissal. After all, you get fired at Disney Land if you take off your costume head piece. To fire an instrument tech for his personal opinions not related to the performance of his job duties, that is a wrongness to my sense of ethics. You might as well allow that church in Lexington to fire their administrative staff because she is an unwed mother. I see the same wrongness in both. As I’ve said, I had a couple of professors in biomedical engineering that were creationist, although not necessarily young earth creationist. To be able to design artificial heart valves, it does not take an understanding of transitional states, it just takes skill. To understand microcirculation flow theory to design a better dialysis device to decrease cell destruction, does not matter your faith.

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