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.

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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. maine liberal

    Through the pursuit of scientific understanding of the universe, something of the Creator of the universe is discovered. Faith and science are not irreconcilable. Pope John Paul II said this, and Pope Benedict XVI has reaffirmed it. Faith and reason are the two wings on which the human spirit takes flight.

    There is no contradiction between what we know through our faith and what we can learn through science. In fact, the sciences, especially astronomy, cosmology and biology make tremendous contributions to faith and theology. Our knowledge of the universe and of nature enriches and nourishes faith and our understanding of God.

    The Church, therefore, does not fear science and its discoveries. Rather, through the work of her scientists, she engages in the discoveries and is a significant voice in understanding them.

    Pope John Paul II pointed this out in a letter to Fr. George Coyne, SJ, then Director of the Vatican Observatory, in June 1, 1988:

    Only a dynamic relationship between theology and science can reveal those limits which support the integrity of either discipline, so that theology does not profess a pseudo-science and science does not become an unconscious theology. Our knowledge of each other can lead us to be more authentically ourselves....We need each other to be what we must be, what we are called to be.

    WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (Catholic Online) - Intelligent Design reduces and belittles God’s power and might, according to the director of the Vatican Observatory.

    Science is and should be seen as “completely neutral” on the issue of the theistic or atheistic implications of scientific results, says Father George V. Coyne, director of the Vatican Observatory, while noting that “science and religion are totally separate pursuits.”

    March 14, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • lexgreen

      Doesn't sound like Coppege was into that whole "neutrality" thing. . . the more system adminstration he did, the more he came to believe about intelligent design in the universe. Guess he should have spent more time working on Windows, that would have soured him on the whole "intelligent design" thing . . .

      March 14, 2012 at 11:34 am |
  2. pop CHEESE

    Stay away from PIPES and WEEDS dude.....

    March 14, 2012 at 11:25 am |
  3. Ben

    The guy was distributing his religious propaganda (the DVD's) at his work. Don't other employees have the right not to be harrassed by this guy? He was warned to stop, he didn't, so he was fired. It's not about intelligent design, or whatever views he may have had. He was asked to stop, he didn't, so they fired him. That's called being a bad employee.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:25 am |
  4. kotekaman

    I understand dead people come back to tell everyone how wonderful the life in heaven is.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:24 am |
  5. Digger

    Male and Female just popped into existence one day. Fancy that.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:23 am |
    • lexgreen

      All in one day??? I thought it took 6?

      March 14, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Well then .. it MUST be God(s)!! Wait .. when did God(s) just "pop" into existence?

      March 14, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • Primewonk

      Why do people who choose to be ignorant about science feel compelled to go onto internet message boards and demonstrate that ignornce for all to see?

      It just doen't make sense. Sure, all of us are ignorant about some things, whether it's because it holds no interest for us, or we haven't had the opportunity to learn about it, or because reality conflicts with our religious beliefs.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:36 am |
  6. lexgreen

    The beginning of life is still an unknown.... for those with the courage to a admit that some things are still unknown.

    The universe is a scary place without explanations for that which we don't yet understand.

    It's one thing to claim that that is some kind of intelligence at work in the Universe. It's quite something else to
    claim that you know what that intelligence is, where it came from, and how long it's been around. That's quite
    a list of theories to claim you have absolute truth for.

    There certainly wouldn't be enough time to discuss it all just during lunch . . .

    March 14, 2012 at 11:23 am |
    • Milky Pirate

      I think we all would get along a lot better if everyone on Earth agreed that we have no idea where life came from and pledged to never talk about it again.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:25 am |
    • lexgreen

      Not many scientists would be able to go along with that plan...

      March 14, 2012 at 11:29 am |
    • DaveP

      Perhaps there is no beginning, no end, just an infinite dance of creation/destruction. Intelligent design, creationism and evolutionism don't take into account regression, destruction and rebirth. Check out Hinduism, Budhism and others and discover that this is not a dualistic debate. Open your minds and let your perception out. Don't let your intelligence be smothered by rigid. dogmatic thinking (or lack thereof).

      March 14, 2012 at 11:36 am |
  7. Padmanabham

    Once the boundaries of the english words "science" and "relligion" are clearly defined, then things can be clear. For now,I don't see any difference between science and religion. Both seek perfection and truth.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:21 am |
    • Milky Pirate

      Yeah, but one makes up answers and the other at least tries to figure out how things work.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:23 am |
    • lexgreen

      Since when did science claim to seek perfection? And what is perfection, anyway?

      March 14, 2012 at 11:25 am |
    • Primewonk

      Religion = based on faith, which essentilly is an opinion not supported by any facts or evidence.

      Science = a systematic study of ome aspect of the natural world, based on repeatable, testable observations, facts, and evidence.

      That clear things up for you?

      March 14, 2012 at 11:25 am |
    • Russ

      @ Primewonk:
      "It is still a metaphysical faith that underlies our faith in science." – Friedrich Nietzsche (the G.ay Science)

      March 14, 2012 at 11:34 am |
    • Mirrorview

      Milky how does one provide answers? Religion like science is a belief until proven wrong. Problem is we as humans want answers to things we will never know the answer to. But we still will try to find them!

      March 14, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • Milky Pirate


      We just have to accept that we do not have all of the answers. More importantly, we shouldn't make up "facts" to fill in for what we don't know; science and religion are both guilty of that.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • Primewonk

      @ Russ – again, science requires no faith.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • Russ

      @ Primewonk:
      Science as a subjective human discipline seeking knowledge does not require faith.
      As.suming 'what I see' is all there is to existence... that is a faith – and is no longer science.

      Science has no objection to religion. They are different disciplines (the 'how' vs. the 'why').
      Scientism (science as a faith) is a rival religion – and feels utterly threatened by any other faith.

      March 14, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
  8. almac

    Let me toss this in for discussion. While I do believe in the Big Bang, I do not believe it was an isolated or singular event. I image our 'Universe', and all that we can perceive as a single grain of sand in the largest of deserts. While we cannot imagine that another grain exist, they are still there, beyond our comprehension. Lets say there have been untold trillions of Big Bangs, happening all over the place, and occasionally overlapping, allowing live to jump from one BB event to another, escaping the eventual collapse, and preserving billions of years of evolutionary advances. Think of how far our species has come in, say, 50 000 years. What would we be like to emerging life forms in a few billion years in some nascent 'neighbouring universe'? Well, we would be Gods.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:21 am |
    • lexgreen

      Or, we might be just a bunch of atheists...

      March 14, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • humanbean

      I am pretty much with you in that, as humans, we don't have the know how or the mental capacity to even start to know anything about the vast universe. It's akin to single cell creations knowing anything about us. I don't believe in a creator, but if there is one, where did that creator come from? And so on and so on. Take the big bang into account and you're left thinking about where the space came from in order for it to expand as far as it has. Humans think of things in terms of beginnings and endings. Somehow I don't believe that the universe operates on those terms. It operates in terms that blows the human's mind away just trying to think of it. Man is nothing beyond neophyte status in regard to understanding anything about this broad universe, but it's been fun watching it all unfold.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:59 am |
  9. If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

    If I designed/engineered something with all the flaws of design as we see around us and in us I'd be fired.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:21 am |
  10. Russ

    "I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
    -Evelyn Beatrice Hall (summing up Voltaire)

    March 14, 2012 at 11:20 am |
    • JT

      But not when it becomes harrassment in the workplace.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:23 am |
    • Russ

      @JT: yes, it sounds like the guy was a jerk. but what about those who aren't?
      I personally think Hegel got it wrong – in a major way. But I'm not trying to silence all Hegelians.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:28 am |
    • Retired Army

      The problem is that he engages in unwanted discussions/debates with coworkers and subordinates.....on the job....in 'theories' regarding Intelligent Design.

      And he attempts to pass out DVDs and coerce co-workers and subordinates to view these DVDs....on the job....that promote Intelligent Design theories.

      Can't do these things....ON THE JOB.....PERIOD!

      The 1st Amendment does NOT protect you here....you have no "right" to harrass coworkers.....on the job.....with your religious view(s),

      March 14, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  11. peick

    I hope everyone notices that we have free speech as long as we agree with the consensus. Free speech ends the moment someone dares to speak of God or morals.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:20 am |
    • Milky Pirate

      Free speech ends at the door to your workplace.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:21 am |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Talk about morals all you want .. they have nothing to do with God(s).
      Milky has a point .. your free speech "rights" end at the door of your workplace.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:25 am |
    • Phil in Oregon

      While he was on the time clock, he needed to be occupied with the job. If the other workers complain and your boss tells you to stop, you have to respect that. You do God no favors by hitting people with the Bible. Or the people either, for that matter.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • bff

      Free speech has consequences in the free market. Just ask Rush Limbaugh.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • zzzzzz

      Free speech has been used in defense of many people forcing their political views.
      In any company, if you keep on bugging people with your personal agenda and waste their time at work, you'll be fired.
      Or in more recent story "A tea-party Marine" stated he will not follow orders from the President. Even though that is a free speech, in any private company if disobey orders or slander private companies, you'll be fired.
      Nothing wrong with religion, but expecting the bible to explain all science is stupid. All versions are written by a human (and not God ) and hard to know which words are perfectly right or in the right place.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:30 am |
    • The REAL Truth...

      That's not true. Free Speech extends to your right to express you opinion. It does not extend to harassment. The definition of harassment varies based on viewpoint. I would consider Rev Wilmon's groups picketing at Military funerals harassment, but the courts ruled it as being allowed under the 1st Amendment.
      Free speech becomes harassment (thus, hostile work environment) when one tries to impose ones views – religious or otherwise – within a confined space (read workplace, prison), where the recipient has no choice but to receive the broadcast message. Distributing religious material in the workplace, or trying organize a union would be considered hostile by employer. It will get you fired. Based on the article, this guy has no chance of winning.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • Retired Army

      Milky doesn't just have a point.....Milky is 100% correct.

      You have no right to engage in religious debate on the job......particularly with co-workers who have no desire to 'debate' with you.

      To do so is harrassment.....which last time I checked, could be cause for dismissal.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • KENNY

      you are FREE to say whatever you want ON YOUR OWN DAAM TIME in a place where the owners don't mind you saying it... moron...

      March 14, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
  12. Padmanabham

    Once the words boundaries of the english words "science" and "relligion" are clearly defined, then things can be clear. I don't see any difference between science and religion. Both seek perfection and truth.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • Jeremy Gould

      You dont see a difference between science and religion? Next time you have an infection, just pray to jesus to take it away instead of taking antibiotics. I'm guessing that might illuminate the difference for you.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:25 am |
    • George

      You're an idiot.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:25 am |
    • Nathan

      Sir, if you really think science and religion are the same, you are sorely mistaken. Religion is dogma based upon faith–i.e., no verifiable proof. It dictates truth. Science is study and experimentation based upon objective observation and mathematical and statistical principles. It seeks to discover truth. These two social constructs are FUNDAMENTALLY different.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • Richard J.

      Religion seeks perfection and truth.

      Science seeks truth through proof.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  13. If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

    If you can get fired for drinking Coke in a Pepsi plant why not for pushing "intelligent design" in a scientific environment ...

    March 14, 2012 at 11:18 am |
  14. This guys whacko

    ID is a religious viewpoint, JPL was correct to stop this behavior as coworkers were complaining

    March 14, 2012 at 11:18 am |
  15. Peter

    Sounds to me like management got sick and tired of listening to complaints about this guy trying to push his ideas on everyone.
    Politics and religion are the two things you never talk about at work or at the bar.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:18 am |
  16. Diamondback

    the only thing that keeps me away from going to a religious establishment for congregation is I don't like being told how to think. In the same manner I don't like atheists for the same reason they push their views on you and tell you how to think. let people believe in whatever makes them happy and shove off if you're mad because they found happiness.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • Kerry

      Sorry, I don't know many atheists that go door to door preaching about their lack of faith. It's a fairly constant thing from relgious groups that think they're doing people a favor by offering them the chance to join their faith (and give them money..or for mormons..get more women)

      March 14, 2012 at 11:35 am |
  17. John

    I KNOW we're not intelligently designed because we're all so STUPID.... also, any designer who built into me the need for glasses after age 40, and an ACHING back, isn't very intelligent.

    When you spread your arms and say "look how beautiful everything is, it MUST be the work of GOD", just remember that your outspread arms are also including all the people who are being victimized (including little children) that very second in the world, some within a very close distance of you probably. If GOD is so powerful and intelligent, then SURELY he's responsible for ALL of it... so I don't trust him....

    March 14, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • GUO

      im only answering to you because you want to blame God for the bad things that happen in this world. think about this: if God were to remove all evil from this world, he would have to remove free will. thats right. He gave you and i free will to make our own choices. if He were to take that away, we'd all be robots. and what kind of life would that be. we decide what we do and dont do. i do agree with you, there ARE stupid people in this world.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:28 am |
  18. Bob

    What is appropiate here is for the co-workers HE HARRASSED to sue him! HE MADE their work enviornment hostile and when asked to stop increased his volatile rhetoric about his beliefs. So to all his co-workers- SUE THE SH** out of him.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  19. TheRationale

    Yeah because you're going to be successful spewing pseudoscientific nonsense to educated people. Moron deserves to be fired. Go NASA.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:17 am |
  20. Calcommuter

    "Intelligent design", the new name for creationism. The old name was scrapped because most people who think for themselves know that there isn't some guy in a white robe sitting on a cloud over Walnut Creek, California granting wishes. A new name was thought up so they can try again. Like miracles that only happened 2000 years ago or earlier, that's bunk. As for this guy, he was obviously smart enough to work for JPL but not smart enough to keep his mouth shut. Now if you'll excuse me, I am off to the northwest to search for Bigfoot then packing my bags for Scotland and have some haggis before looking for Nessie!

    March 14, 2012 at 11:17 am |
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About this blog

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.