By AT News Team, Feb. 18, 2015: Three former employees of La Sierra University (LSU) have dropped their lawsuit against the Adventist Church. The lawsuit sought damages for wrongful termination, breech of contract, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and other grievances relating to what the trio claims were unfair coerced resignations from the university in 2011.
The three plaintiffs—Jeffry Kaatz, James Beach and Gary Bradley—were noted LSU employees. At the time of their resignations, Kaatz was LSU’s vice president of development, Beach was dean of the College of Arts and Science, and Bradley was a biology professor.
California Superior Court Judge Edward Webster ruled against the three plaintiffs on March 5, 2014. The three were in the process of appealing the March decision when they decided to drop the lawsuit. With this move, Webster’s summary judgment in favor of La Sierra University and the other defendants stands.
Richard McCune, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, told Adventist Today that the suit was dropped as a matter of practicality. McCune said that he believes the judge ruled incorrectly and that the matter should have gone to a jury. However, “once a case is decided wrongly,” McCune stated, “the rates are very low for getting that reversed in an appellate court. Even though we strongly believe the judge got it wrong, it’s just an analysis of the likelihood of being able to win an appeal.”
Daniel Jackson, president of the North American Division (NAD) of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, stated in an NAD news release: “We are grateful that this lawsuit has ended and that the Church and La Sierra University can focus all of our attention and resources to the quality education of our students.” Jackson was named as a defendant in the lawsuit along with Larry Blackmer, NAD Vice President for Education, and Ricardo Graham, president of the Pacific Union of Seventh-day Adventists.
In 2011, the three plaintiffs were asked to resign after a recording of a private conversation between them and Lenny Darnell, a member of the LSU board at the time, was accidentally made public. The conversation included disparaging comments about church administrators and references to consuming alcoholic beverages.
At the time of the conversation, LSU was investigating professors who were accused of teaching evolution in their science classes. The degree of academic independence that Seventh-day Adventist educational institutions should have from the denomination’s administration was a significant aspect of the institution’s analysis. Regardless, it was the recorded conversation rather than the broader academic debate that led directly to the four being asked to resign from their positions with the university.
Although he was originally reluctant to join the suit, Gary Bradley shared with Adventist Today why became a plaintiff. “I was talking with a junior faculty member on campus,” Bradley said. “He said, ‘Gary, my entire life my goal has been to teach in an Adventist college. I have now attained that goal. If you don’t fight this thing, I’m going to spend my life looking over my shoulder.’ I went out and joined the suit.”
Bradley declared that his primary reason for joining the suit was to force institutional change. “I thought that if we won, it would force the Adventist Church hierarchy to leave colleges alone a little bit. I wanted La Sierra to be proudly Adventist but somewhat independent, an arm’s length from the hierarchy,” Bradley said.
With the end of the appeal, Bradley admits this change is not likely, which is a negative outcome for education in his view. “I believe that right now La Sierra and all of Adventist higher education are in dire straights because they’ve got the church hierarchy telling them that they must do one thing, and they’ve got their accrediting association telling them that they must do something else. They’re in trouble. Our lawsuit has not helped.”
Bradley’s concern relates to a letter that the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, LSU’s accrediting body, sent to the university. The letter said that a university could lose its accreditation if it allows external groups or constituencies to determine academic curriculum and policies.
Despite the acrimonious court proceedings, Bradley asserts that the three plaintiffs still value LSU. “We love La Sierra,” he told Adventist Today. “Our problem was with the North American Division and General Conference interference with La Sierra. I personally had been named approximately a year prior to that by the new president of the General Conference, Ted Wilson, as being a bad person needing to be fired because I teach evolution.”
In his defense, Bradley does not deny teaching evolution; however, he is eager to describe his motivation. “I spent 46 years in denominational work in education, always trying to be faith-affirming,” he declared. “I wanted to be faith-affirming for my kids, and I learned the hard way that if you say evolution is all b.s., then when the kids find out what the data is, they think you lied to them. I discovered that being the most faith-affirming was to say to the kids, ‘This is the data. Now you’ll spend the rest of your life wrestling with how to make that fit with your religion. Don’t throw away either one lightly. It’s a tough problem, but wrestle with it.’”