published Saturday, May 17th, 2014

Judge calls on Bible in Bryan College case as professors win narrow restraining order

Bryan College's Rudd Auditorium
Bryan College's Rudd Auditorium
Photo by Dan Henry.

The echoes of the 1925 Scopes Trial can't go unnoticed.

The two professors suing Bryan College to keep their jobs filed their lawsuit in the same old red brick courthouse. Creation and evolution play a central role in the legal debate. And even today, William Jennings Bryan is proving an influential force.

But Hamilton County Chancellor Jeffrey Atherton -- trying the case after a Rhea County judge recused himself -- made it clear that this wouldn't be like the Scopes Trial, which was as much spectacle as substance.

In the first formal hearing of the lawsuit, Atherton handed down an "extremely limited" temporary restraining order barring Bryan from hiring replacements for the two professors in question, though the college is allowed to continue advertising and interviewing for the posts. That restraining order will keep the positions unfilled until a June hearing on the matter.

After granting the order, the judge handed down another message. After a short recess, he carried a black-bound Bible back from chambers and handed it to the two attorneys. He pointed them to Proverbs 6:16-19, which reads:

"There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers."

"We will not be having a second Scopes Trial," Atherton said.

The 2014-15 contracts of science professor Stephen Barnett and education professor Steven DeGeorge were rejected by Bryan College after they objected to a change in the school's long-held statement of belief. Billed as a clarification by administrators, the new language embraced a more narrow view of human creation that excludes the possibility that God used evolution as part of creation.

They each signed their contracts, but added amendments saying they agreed to the original statement, but not to any changes to it. College President Stephen Livesay rejected the contracts, saying they were signed "under protest." Both professors will continue being paid until July 31, though their current contracts expire today.

Bryan College's attorney, Rosemarie Hill, argued that the board of trustees has every right to require employees to subscribe to certain viewpoints. And, she said, the clarification was just that -- a clarification. Hill said there was no way that Barnett and DeGeorge could have worked at Bryan for years without understanding the school's stance as one of Young Earth creationism.

"It's Bryan College," she said.

J. Edward Nanney, the professors' attorney, argued that the college's move represented a substantial change, not a clarification. The school's charter says the statement of belief cannot be altered. And Nanney said trustees' February clarification -- which was later enforced on contracts -- is a substantive change.

"The founders said what they had in mind," Nanney said.

The judge will hear arguments in June on whether to extend the restraining order on hiring Barnett and DeGeorge's replacements throughout the court proceedings. He plans to hold the trial in May of next year.

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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