Riverside Court Rules in Favor of La Sierra University in Faculty Lawsuit
By AT News Team, March 6, 2014
In the lawsuit involving the forced resignations of three faculty members at La Sierra University (LSU), the court on Wednesday (March 5) issued a summary judgment in favor of the North American Division (NAD) of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the denomination's Pacific Union Conference and LSU. The university released a statement, stating that the school “respects the court’s decision that all causes of action brought in the lawsuit … were without legal merit.”
The three former faculty involved are Dr. Jeffry Kaatz who was vice president of development, Dr. James Beach who was dean of the College Arts and Sciences, and Dr. Gary Bradley who was professor of biology. The three were forced to resign in June of 2011 after a recorded conversation surfaced in which the three were speaking with LSU board member Lenny Darnell, NAD president Dan Jackson and NAD vice president Larry Blackmer.
Darnell intentionally recorded a conversation regarding meetings at LSU on the topic of evolution in biology classes. However, Darnell inadvertently also recorded a later conversation that was intended to be off the record.
In June 2011 Spectrum, the journal of the largest organization of Adventist academics, reported that the recording included “foul language, references to alcohol consumption and unflattering comments being made about board members, administrators and church leaders.” Kaatz, Beach, and Bradley were told they could resign or a transcript of the conversation would be shared with the LSU board.
At the time of the resignations, LSU emphasized that the motivation for action was not the issues related to how to teach about evolution. Despite this statement, the evolution issue was an important aspect of the court’s ruling, a source has told Adventist Today.
This source also reported that the court felt that it would be a religious entanglement prohibited by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution for it to get into questions of religious freedom and the denomination’s theological issues, including the teaching evolution. “The judge could not understand why anyone would object to teaching evolution, but he said a church can teach anything they think is a core value and it is protected by free speech.”
The defense attorneys for the denomination argued that the Adventist Church is hierarchical in structure and the leaders can reach down to the university and force a resignation because, as the judge pointed out, “The Church created La Sierra University,” calling the school “flat out a church institution.” He concluded that because the NAD has every right to tell LSU how it can or cannot operate, the school did not act improperly and ecclesiastical decisions cannot be reviewed by a secular court.
Adventist Today was told that the summary judgment means the case is dead unless the parties appeal. The source guessed the case would likely be appealed because an estimated quarter of a million dollars has already been spent in preparation.
The LSU press release in response to the court ruling concluded, “This has been a difficult three-year period for the university and the plaintiffs. Now is a time when the university can reflect on how it can build a stronger community and heal the wounds that have resulted from these issues.”