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Terminated employee claims bias against intelligent design
NASA's Cassini space probe snapped this photo of jets spewing from Saturn's moons.
March 13th, 2012
10:08 PM ET

Terminated employee claims bias against intelligent design

By Stan Wilson, CNN

Los Angeles (CNN) - A former veteran systems administrator for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory claimed during opening arguments in a civil lawsuit Tuesday that he was wrongfully terminated for expressing his views on intelligent design.

David Coppedge, who spent 15 years on the Cassini Mission, one of NASA and JPL's most ambitious planetary space explorations, asserts that he was unlawfully fired under his employer's anti-harassment and ethics policies. JPL contends Coppedge created a hostile workplace while expressing his religious views with co-workers.

His suit also claims that supervisors wrongly admonished him for distributing DVD documentary films titled "Unlocking the Mystery of Life" and "The Privileged Planet," which present biological and cosmological explanations for intelligent design, according to the complaint.

Coppedge claims he never forcibly compelled colleagues to accept his idea of intelligent design in the workplace. Intelligent design is a conviction that life is too complex to have developed solely through evolution and that the universe was designed by an intelligent entity.

CNN's Belief Blog – all the faith angles to the day's top stories

JPL, based in Pasadena, California, is one of the world's most prestigious institutions for scientific research and development institutions. In Coppedge's civil lawsuit, he describes JPL's space missions as designed, in part, to explore the origin of the universe, uncover whether life exists elsewhere in the universe - or is improbably confined to earth - and whether conditions necessary for life to exist reside elsewhere in the universe.

Launched in October 1997, the Cassini mission to Saturn included a sophisticated robotic spacecraft that orbited the ringed planet and provided streams of data about its rings, magnetosphere, moon Titan and icy satellites. Cassini was the largest interplanetary mission ever launched, with the largest technical staff and participation of 18 countries.

In his role, Coppedge was responsible for making technical and scientific recommendations to management and developing presentations about various technical capabilities of new systems and upgrades, his attorney William Becker Jr. said during opening arguments. During his tenure, Coppedge developed a "sincere interest in the scientific evidence behind life's origin," which led to his conviction about "intelligent design."

Coppedge shared the view that life and the existence of the universe derived not from "undirected material processes," but from "intelligent cause," said attorney Becker.

In March 2009, Coppedge claims that his supervisor advised him that co-workers had complained that he was harassing them over debates about his religious views and coercing them in the workplace into watching DVD programs about intelligent design. During his opening statements Tuesday, attorney Becker Jr. told a judge hearing the case that Coppedge's supervisor threatened him with termination if he "pushed his religion" and ordered Coppedge to refrain from discussing politics or religion with anyone in the office.

During that 2009 meeting, Coppedge alleges, his supervisor became angry and belligerent asserting that "intelligent design is religion" and ordered him to stop. "The tone of the meeting and conduct were abusive and constituted harassment," his attorney said in court.

JPL spokeswoman Veronica McGregor said the lawsuit "is completely without merit, and we intend to vigorously fight the allegations raised by Mr. Coppedge."

In their response to the civil suit, attorneys for JPL stated in court documents that one of Coppedge's co-workers complained to his supervisor that Coppedge made her feel so uncomfortable in discussing "non work related topics" that it bordered on harassment. The supervisor encouraged Coppedge to limit his discussions about topics like religion and politics to periods like lunch breaks, according to the response.

The documents state that other co-workers complained they also felt harassed when Coppedge expressed views in favor of California Proposition 8, the ballot initiative in 2010 that defined marriage between and man and woman.

"David Coppedge alienated his co-workers by the way he acted with them, and blamed anyone who complained about those interactions," according to JPL in their response. "He accuses his former project supervisor and line manager of making discriminatory and retaliatory employment decision, when they had in fact protected him for years."

JPL alleged that Coppedge "was seen as stubborn, unwilling to listen and always having to do things his way, which frustrated project members and resulted in errors."

Coppedge was demoted after eight years as lead systems administrator and terminated last year. He cited those actions as a factor in basis for his suit claiming religious discrimination, retaliation, harassment and wrongful demotion.

JPL has denied Coppedge's termination complaint, contending he was among 246 employees laid off as part of a downsizing plan that affected 300 staffers.

"JPL complies with all applicable state and federal employment laws including laws governing freedom of expression," said JPL spokeswoman McGregor.

California Institute of Technology operates JPL, which is federally funded under a contract with NASA. Scientists are employed by the Caltech.

The case has generated interest among advocates of intelligent design. The Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian civil rights group, and the Discovery Institute, a proponent of intelligent design, are supporting Coppedge's lawsuit. The National Center for Science Education, which supports the teaching of evolution in public education, is closely monitoring the case.

Coppedge is seeking damages for wrongful termination, including attorney fees. The nonjury trial is expected to last four weeks.

*An earlier headline for this article identified David Coppedge as a scientist. His attorney later said that despite his technical work with computers, he is not a scientist.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • Culture & Science • Science

soundoff (2,244 Responses)
  1. Gil

    As a person of Faith who believes in a Creator AND who believes in evolution (Yeah, we do exist), I would support his firing on the grounds of harassing people at work with his beliefs. There are hundreds of replicated scientific experiements demonstrating evolution; there is NOT ONE scientific experiment demonstrating intelligent design. In fact, all attempts to scientifically demonstrate intelligent design end up supporting evolution. Scientific beliefs can be tested, demonstrated and/or negated; a belief in God is a personal thing that should stay that way. Love thy neighbor sucka!

    March 14, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • zip

      Allah, Buddha or someone else? Do you realize that your God is chosen by where you live?? Or does that not register with you??

      March 14, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • turkey

      Are you a "god of the gaps" believer or do you have good reasons to believe in a creator?

      March 14, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • 1ofTheFallen

      Explain how the Big Dirt Ball in the Sky got there to begin with. Where did all the dirt come from (Some giant Dust Pan)? If the Universe is still excelerating in it's expansion which it shouldn't be based on Big Dirt Ball theory then we know that even science's most basic assumptions in question.

      The DNA programming required to create life capable of replicating in even the most simple single celled organism is far far more complex than anything mankind has ever built. Given this it is not to far of a stretch to see why people look for intelligence. Plus the Man in the Sky tells people to treat each other with respect. The Dirt Ball in the Sky just get you dirty. Neither has been proven fact but one has been proven wrong

      March 14, 2012 at 11:11 am |
    • The Jackdaw

      word home slice.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:11 am |
    • Pirate65

      Sadly, Gil, not enough people like you exist. Too many people who can't accept science do exist. Their idea of "intelligent design" is really just creationism without any science at all. It's a wolf in sheep's clothing. I live in a state full of extreme idiots who would love to see us back in the dark ages. I wish that if they must be religious, they would be more like you!!!

      March 14, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  2. us1776

    I would have fired this guy as well if he were in my organization.

    You cannot promote your political or religious views at the office. It is too disruptive.

    What you do on your own time is one thing. What you do on my time is quite another.

    .

    March 14, 2012 at 11:05 am |
  3. Noodlez

    PS Pretty sure most scientists believe that biological life is a result of amino acids forming complex proteins; or even RNA if you’re down with that idea, not the chromosome, that comes in later when forming creating DNA. Though as far as Chromosomes go, you may be a few short home-skillet.

    Booyah – You just got LOL’d right out of 8th grade Science Class!

    March 14, 2012 at 11:05 am |
    • gok

      Memorizing a few sentences you read on google doesnt make you smarter than the MASTER OF THE UNIVERSE, fool. (and Im not talking about He-mans buddies ;))

      March 14, 2012 at 11:08 am |
  4. Brain

    The main problem is, how a religious nut job got a job at Nasa at first place? Who recruited this guy? Really? Aren' t they supposed to be the smartest people around?

    March 14, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • D

      dude, religious people can be smart too. those two things are not mutually exclusive

      March 14, 2012 at 11:05 am |
    • bff

      I could see how an ID person can be a good scientist. Unlike young-earthers, they havent rejected science, they just believe there was a "starter" god to get everything going. And people are very good at compartmentalizing.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • Brain

      not saying all religious in general, but the fanatic nut jobs, and someone that believes on ID/creationism obviously lack a third digit on their IQ.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:08 am |
  5. bitXbit

    A lot of what people cal "science" these days is just another faith based religion. Science is defined by the scientific method, and since we cannot observe, test, and re-test, the origins of the species, we are all left to have faith in something. Which either includes God, or it doesn't, but either way it is a religion and not science.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • D

      spoken like someone who truly doesn't understand how science works. you sir, FAIL

      March 14, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • Pirate65

      You don't understand what science is, do you?

      March 14, 2012 at 11:08 am |
  6. Pirate65

    The problem with the "intelligent design" people is that they can't seem to merge the ideas that science and religion don't have to be at odds. Most of us believe that something smarter than us probably created the universe. However, the Big Bang theory and evolution explain how that took place over a period of time. If you are a scientist and you can't accept science, you need to be fired.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • Nii

      Science makes space for all knowledge including Intelligent Design. If he promoted his views on origins of life that would be wrong. If he just presented them then he did nothing wrong.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  7. Oh Well

    Call it irony, but evolution got rid of him... I guess not intelligent enough to survive! What is great news after seen last night the direction that politics is taking in this country.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • Clyde M

      Please don't misuse the term evolution to describe this situation. The term is misunderstood enough without you adding yet another erroneous use to the discourse.

      March 15, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  8. zip

    Real scientists who work in the field of immunology accept evolution as a fact. Watching viruses constantly adapt to efforts to eradicate them is evidence enough. Why do you think we constantly have to change the way we attack viruses?? Because they evolve. Even a chimp understands this. Unless you are holding out a collection plate.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  9. 1ofTheFallen

    My point is that neither science (Big Bang, Evolution) or God and religion is a proven fact. So why does anyone have to be stupid for their beliefs? They do not it's only because people are not open minded but are to rigid to see another point of view. They should be able to coexist until one is proven. In my defense I do believe in both. I have studied both and understand that the person Jesus was not myth. There is to much written history from the time of Jesus life to dispute his existence. Even those who wanted him killed wrote about him during his life time. A small piece of history.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:03 am |
    • D

      actually, most of that "evidence" is hearsay or inferred information. very little reliably direct information exists.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • zip

      Please don't spend a lot of time talking to the imaginary voice in your head.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • The Jackdaw

      The danger is that religion offers simplistic short answers to big questions that require more effort than simply saying "god did it." I beleive there is value in religion, absolutely, but clinging to archaic dogma is not progress and one needs to be careful.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • Think Instead

      Yep – there was most likely a MAN named Jesus.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • Steve

      The difference is the amount of evidence behind something. God has no more evidence behind "him" that fairies or sprites while the Big Bang and evolution do. Big gap in your comment. In terms of Jesus you really must look at the evidence, nothing was written about jesus contemporary to his times. Paul is the earliest writer (55AD approx) but he never met Jesus and was unspecific (some would argue the Jewish Christians and Paul were incompatible but the latter won the argument which is ironic as the former actualyl knew jesus). The earliest Gospel written, according to the majority of scholars was Mark, roughly 40 years after Jesus died and oral tradition is not reliable and there was a tendency in these times to combine myth with facts (eg: Homer). If you read the gospels side by side you will notice many contradictions and inconsistencies as well as historical innacuracies. Outside sources are Tacitus which was in the 2nd century and who stated nothing specific. The excerpt in Josephus is widely regarded as forged. Do I beleive that at the end of Matthew the dead were walking around jerusalem and nobody else noticed. No. Evolution and the Big Bang have far far far more evidence behind it.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  10. Hobbits

    I applaud JPL for going to court on this one. All too often companies settle these things and let bullies get away with pushing their views on others. NO, I wasn't there so the only "facts" I know are what is written in this article but as a rule-of-thumb discussions regarding political views, religion, etc are best left out of the office. Regardless of the tone of the conversation with supervisors, he was told to stop and did not do so. Staff complained about his non-work related conversations and handing out material they were not comfortable receiving. The fact that other managers and PMs has complained that he didn't follow company rules and did things his own way demonstrates a pattern of alienation within the work place.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:02 am |
  11. wart

    Well, that's about as useful as filing a lawsuit against a kangaroo for being biased against laying eggs.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  12. lordpet

    If you constantly annoy your co-workers to the point that you interfere with their work, you will get fired. Not hard to figure out, especially in a place facing stiff budget cuts. And "theory of evolution" is not = "theory on where my wallet is". Learn what the term means before you rant.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • 1ofTheFallen

      Your adding in a bit. I didn't see in this article that he was constanly harssasing or interferring with work.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:05 am |
  13. eric

    I think that the problem that athiests have is that you can not prove a negative such as the non existence of God to do so would require a person to have direct access to all locations in the universe at one instant in time. As a result of the above problem the only way that they feel that they can try to silence the opposition is to belittle and attack their character. Their anger may come from the fact that they do not like the idea that they might have to be accountable to a higher authority (God) when they die and our witnessing to them reminds them of this event that they have to look forward to unless they repent and accept Jesus as their Savior before they die.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • D

      wow, that's pretty judgmental of you. deserves a FAIL!

      March 14, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • Gaunt

      I cannot disprove god in EXACTLY the same way you cannot disprove that I am invisible, intangible, flying and floating above you excreteing intangible dumps on your head.

      hey, you cant DISprove it, so it must be possible, right?

      And its just as likely as your god.

      Provide one single solitary shred of positiove, verifyable evidence your god exists, or go away.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      Your comment shows how small your mind is. You can't prove god made the universe just like you can't prove Gremlins made the Universe. You are the ones with panties in a bunch because you have NOTHING!

      March 14, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • YeahOk

      "Their anger may come from the fact that they do not like the idea that they might have to be accountable to a higher authority (God) when they die"

      No anger here.

      I'm just interested in living in a world that doesn't require me to live based on someone else's fairy tales.

      Must be convenient think you can sin all you want, repent, and then share in all of your god's treasures. I however, am accountable to the rest of my fellow occupants here on Earth till I die.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • zip

      Unless you were born in the Middle East and believed in Allah.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • Adam

      Didn't read LOL!

      March 14, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • MT

      Well, you've got that exactly 180 degrees wrong. Atheists don't have to prove a negative, and they don't try. Theists have to prove a positive. All atheists have to do is show how theists have failed to prove their hypothesis. So, prove a god exists using something other that fairy tales written by humans in a book. Should be easy enough for you, right?

      March 14, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • Beth

      Or maybe they are just smarter than you.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • LinCA

      @eric

      You said, "I think that the problem that athiests have is that you can not prove a negative such as the non existence of God to do so would require a person to have direct access to all locations in the universe at one instant in time."
      atheists*

      It is utterly ridiculous to assume there is a god without any evidence in support. Unless you can show that there is a reason to believe there are any gods, it is completely unreasonable to do so.

      Your god is equally likely to exist as the Tooth Fairy. Equal evidence yields equal merit.

      You said, "As a result of the above problem the only way that they feel that they can try to silence the opposition is to belittle and attack their character."
      The above is not a problem. And questioning the intelligence of adults that still believe in fairy tales, isn't really an attack on their character. OK, I'll give you the belittling.

      You said, "Their anger may come from the fact that they do not like the idea that they might have to be accountable to a higher authority (God) when they die and our witnessing to them reminds them of this event that they have to look forward to unless they repent and accept Jesus as their Savior before they die"
      Make sure that you also accept Thor, Zeus, Ra, and tens of thousands of other gods ever invented by man. You wouldn't want to accidentally worship the wrong one, now would you?

      March 14, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • TR6

      “I think that the problem that athiests have is that you can not prove a negative such as the non existence of God”

      No, the problem this atheist has is that there is the same amount of evidence supporting the existence of god as there is for vampires, ghosts and UFOs. However Christians demand that society accept the existence of their god as fact and validate their religious dogmas by incorporating them into civil law.

      Christians might just as well go around trying to pass laws requiring everyone to wear garlic and tin foil hats

      March 14, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • JB

      eric – you have spoken truth. None of us were in the work environment to see what happened. I personally believe that evolution AND God are possible because God is limitless. I have seen God in action in healing and other areas. Just because others have not seen Him in action doesn't mean He doesn't exist. But I too have watched people tear down believers and experienced it personally. The level of animosity speaks to the condition of their own heart, but they are too blind to see it. Pray for them (and us ) for God can and does soften the hardest of hearts. In the end, it is their own choice, their own free will to believe or to not.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:25 am |
  14. sherwin

    Funny how IDers don't claim to be creationists, yet both have the EXACT same language and interpretation of evolutionary theory verbatim, go to the same church, watch the same videos, use the same arguments, vote for the same leaders, listen to the same pastors, and quote the same scripture, etc... If you are so different then, show it. Of course you can't, because you are the SAME person. Your naturally making the same mistakes. You will lose in court the same way. Again.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • Gaunt

      The irony of course is that ID is simply the next evolution of creationism.

      They are a case study for the science they disbelieve.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:05 am |
    • Fladabosco

      The gent wasn't fired because of his beliefs, he was fired because of his actions. Was he the only conservative Christian working there? I doubt it. If he was asked not to discuss religion on work hours then he did it, he should be fired, whether he's a rabid Christian, Jew, Bhuddist, Agnostic, Druid or whatever. It seems to me that he was fired because he was harrassing his coworkers, not the other way around.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • Trail_Mix

      I disagree Shewrin. Although I grew up in church and was heavily involved for many years, I'm no longer a part of 'organized religion'. I don't like it. I'm not sure if there is a god, but I hope there is. I don't belive in creationism, but I do think ID has true merit. Furthermore, ID is not in and of it self religious. There are many sciences that use the same principles of ID in their practice. Cryptology, Archeology, Forensics, etc. ID simply observes a situation and concludes whether or not some sort of purposeful intent by an 'intelligent' party is evident. Did this pile of rocks happen naturally, or where they stacked by an acient civilization? Did this person die of natural causes, or were they murdered? Does this sequence of letters contain a hidden code, or is it just a random string.

      In terms of the universe- the question is: Did this all happen randomly, or is their observable evidence that suggest some sort of intent- just like in archeology, cryptology, and forensics. Naturally, many people ASSUME ID is religious, b/c they conclude errouneously that it presumes there is a God. Not so. It simply concludes there is design. Who designed it? Who knows? Many are eventually left to conclude only a supernatural power (beyond nature) could be the answer based on our finite understanding. IE, a God. However- this conclusion is not presumed from the beginning.

      There are many unknowns in science- even among 'atheists'. The universe had a beginning, but no one knows what caused that, or what – if anything – existed before then. They can speculate, but in the end our observations can only point towards something beyond our understanding. For IDists, they observe cues in nature that have all the hallmarks of intent and design, found in everyday life. Thus, they speculate on a designer. This doesn't make them religious nuts, any more than a scientis who speculates on what's in a blackhole is a religious nut.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • Lying for Jesus is still lying

      It's not funny, it's intentional. ID is a purposeful repackaging of Christian creationism in an attempt to disguise it as science so that they could slip it back into public science classrooms. Go read some of the transcripts of the Dover trial. There's a great part where they show how the different versions of the "textbook" Of Pandas and People goes from something like 200 mentions of god and 0 mentions of "intelligent design" in previous editions right up until the Supreme Court ruled creationism out of schools...and then the next edition has 200 mentions of "intelligent designer" and 0 mentions of god. They just repackaged the Christian materials as "intelligent design" materials. It's so blatantly dishonest that only that movement would dare use the tactic.

      March 15, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  15. Brain

    Scientist? That is like calling an atheist a religious person.

    March 14, 2012 at 10:59 am |
  16. PTC Bernie

    Ok then, how about this? Have the JPL scientists get jobs at his church as deacons, then have them hand out DVD's on evolution and the Big Bang theory after Sunday service and then see how accepting and open minded they are(G).

    March 14, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • Danman

      If you don't teach science in my church I won't pray in your school LMAO!

      March 14, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  17. Freethinker

    How hard is it to understand that the workplace is NOT the right place for proselytizing? Nobody was preventing this guy from believing in Intelligent Design (although he's not the brightest bulb in the box if he subscribes to that philosophy). However, just as I know it would be inappropriate to keep pushing propaganda in support of ANY OTHER religious belief (or anti-religious position), this guy should know that work was not the time or place to push his ID propaganda.

    If I worked at NASA and insisted that the expedition to Saturn should reveal evidence of the ancient Greek or Roman gods, and kept insisting that the data supported that mythology, I'd expect to be told (first) to stop preaching about it at work, and then get fired if I kept doing it.

    Just DON'T DISCUSS IT. Really. It's that simple.

    March 14, 2012 at 10:59 am |
  18. Sandy

    He claims the universe was created by a creator.
    Questions: A-Who created the creator?
    B-Does the creator have a creator?

    March 14, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • pop CHEESE

      Who is the CREATOR of the universe? It's GOOD Question. It would be better if you watch "CERN Black Hole" on youtube

      March 14, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • james

      That's simple minded thinking. God does not need to be created. He simply IS. There is no formula than can decribe him.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:11 am |
    • SOD

      Where did the energy / mass needed for the bang theory come from? It takes more faith to believe in evolution than ID, where's the science in that?

      March 14, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  19. D

    so his defense is "he never *forcibly* compelled colleagues to accept his views"?
    really?
    REALLY?
    so, the only time attempting to foist your views onto others is wrong is when it's done forcibly??
    reaaaaally?

    March 14, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  20. honest abe

    so... who designed.... the Intelligent designer??? if something intelligent must have designed the complex universe – who designed the intelligent life form, who must be even more complex. when will these religious nuts stop?

    March 14, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • He who has the last laugh

      Maybe God is Real ?
      Maybe God does not exist ?.
      Maybe God is an race of beings from another planet ?

      Why is it you must squash all other viewpoints but your own ? To do so only limits your possible understanding of life.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:06 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.