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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.

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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. caw

    If God will appear as a witness, I say let the lawsuit continue, otherwise it's frivolous.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:45 am |
  2. Jeanette Herron

    I believe God Does Exist and we as humans are exploring this universe and trying to figure out how He Did It thus making sicence a full time commitment..

    March 14, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • Joe T.

      Which God? If you are talking about the Judeo-Christian God, what makes him more plausible than any of the other gods that are out there?

      March 14, 2012 at 11:50 am |
  3. Dave

    Discussing religious views at JPL= not a wise thing to do. Most scientist's are atheists by default anyway.

    Save the faith talk for the people that WANT to hear it.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • Chris

      I would go further. Religion and politics have nothing to do in the workplace. If people want to discuss their opinions on non-work related topics, ithey can invite theircoworkers at their house, church, or another meeting place and let them choose if they want to attend and discuss those opinions.
      This is harrassment in the workplace.

      March 14, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
  4. Sir Ivanhoe

    For more info read novels - king of Bat'ha - and sequel - Tales from the East: Return of Ivanhoe.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  5. East of Eden

    I think it's funny that the same people that accept the Big Bang as canon forget that it is a theory that cannot be proven. These same folks come and bash Creationism for that same very reason. Seems like everyone just needs to do what they will, accept the fact that we'll always think differently and keep it moving.

    If you say Intelligent Design shouldn't be in public schools, you have a valid point. Separation between church and state ensures this. If you do Creationism you have to go through other faith's take on the creation of the universe as well and that wont give our kids the much needed brain power they need to get us out this funk!

    March 14, 2012 at 11:43 am |
    • asdf

      I understand that the Big Bang can't be "proven" outright, but the reason scientists detest hearing about intelligent design is that it has no evidence to support it. There's a lot of reasons to believe that the big bang happened and that we are all the product of evolution. But nobody would ever objectively assess the evidence (and by that I mean excluding the bible) and come to the conclusion that we were intelligently designed by some universal benefactor.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • Amused

      I strongly disagree! The big bang theory, though not proven, DOES have a mountain of scientific FACTS that support it! There is not one single scientific FACT that supports "Intelligent Design"! NOT ONE! THAT is the HUGE difference between the two "theories"!...

      March 14, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • Mike D

      People of faith toss around the term "theory" with very little understanding of what a theory is, or how the scientific method works. Creationism is not technically theory because the evidence doesn't back it up. Creationism is, at best, a hypothesis, and loose one at that.

      Calling something a theory doesn't undermine its plausibility one bit. In fact, if something is implausible it can't qualify as a theory. If a theory is revealed as implausible it ceases to become a theory.

      March 14, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • Rade

      You are right. Theories cannot be proved. They can be falsified though. Creationism is not falsifiable. As a result, it is not considered scientific knowledge. The big bang theory can be falsified, but so far analyses have supported it. As a result, it is scientific knowledge.

      Creationism and the big bang theory are not the same thing from different sides. One of them has supporting evidence. That doesn't make creationism wrong, but let's not confuse a scientific theory with an extraordinary claim that by definition cannot be disproved.

      March 14, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
  6. Andrew

    Intelligent design as well as other religious explanations for scientific questions are simply a fail-over for, "I don't know". With an omni-present being that is capable of anything, an indiviual can always credit them with responsibility when they can't find an answer. It's existed through history, across religions, from sun gods existing until human understanding of the sun to believing heaven's a realm in the sky (until man reached the heavens and saw no magical kingdom there) and hell beneath the earth in fire (probably an idea come forth after viewing a volcano belching sulfur and fire from the earth). The religious interpretation of how things come into being or are caused give people solace, until they gain a broad understanding to replace that story. Christianity is based on a book comprised of 2nd hand accounts and beyond as well as being translated across multiple languages (some of which being extinct) to illustrate parables on morality. These were compiled together around the 4th century AD to form the bible with very little change since then. Point is, ideas... god forbid... evolve. I think those who oppose the theory of evolution, oppose evolution in alll forms – they fear change and want to remain with ideas of the past. Adherence to religion for me is a vehicle to become a better person in order to attain perfection and anyone can do this with whatever religion or beliefs the deem fit, and what better way to atttain perfection by evolving into a better more perfect being? (I think if a god created people in his/her own image, then he/she would be quite pleased for those creations striving to be more like their creator)

    March 14, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  7. deano

    Heres a disgruntled ex employee who is now broke and needs money.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  8. Jake

    Evolution disproves intelligent design. That's a scientific fact. Anyone who can't understand that or chooses to ignore it is clearly not competent to work at one of the leading scientific labs in the world. I can't even imagine why anyone who believes in intelligent design would WANT to work at a scientific organization.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • Dale

      Macroevolution is unproven.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:49 am |
  9. svann

    In a previous article NASA said that his project was ending so that was why he was laid off. If that is true then his entire team would be laid off. So if the team got laid off he has no case. If the team was not laid off then he does. They are changing the story slightly now to be a general downsize, but they are already in print with the other story.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:40 am |
  10. lexgreen

    'Coppedge claims he never forcibly compelled colleagues to accept his idea of intelligent design in the workplace.'

    Well, there you go, that should help him win his case, right there. As long as he wasn't abducting people and confining them in the basement of his church.... he should be able to prove a hostile environment.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • CosmicC

      The problem with your statement is that it doesn't matter if he believes he was harrassing them or not. Harrassment is in the perception of the people being harrassed.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:54 am |
  11. Evan in KC

    I think the real issue here would be separation of church and state. NASA is a government organization. Religion should not be taught or pushed within the confines or campus of any government establishment. That being said, people should be allowed to practice their religions and receive no due punishment for doing so. However, once it goes past practicing and towards pushing the religion on others, arguments, debates, teaching, etc., you have breached the Separation of Church and State boundaries.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • lexgreen

      So 'intelligent design' is a religion? A religion discoverd by science?? What about all the design lacking intelligence.... what about the EDSEL ?? Is that another religion?

      March 14, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • Amused

      Lex – "Intelligent Design" IS based on religion! It WAS NOT "discovered" by any kind of scientific investigation whatsoever! It is ENTIRELY based on BELIEF in the BIBLE and is, in fact, a FICTIONAL product of religious imagination! There is not one tiny shred of fact nor any evidence whatsoever that supports "Intelligent Design"! It has NO PLACE in scientific research...

      March 14, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  12. asdf

    Another religious fanatic claiming we've infringed on his rights by asking that he not shove it down our throats. Ho Hum.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • Qev

      Basically, Yes.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  13. If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

    I was fired once for telling everyone that a voice told me to kill my son and at the last minute an angel appeared to me and stopped me .. what's up with that.!? It worked for Abraham & billions have followed him. Then child protective services came & got me. WTH?

    March 14, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  14. Mike D

    One thing I like about this story: nobody is even trying to pretend this isn't about religion. When the intelligent design people were trying to shoehorn their bunkum into the public schools a few years back they claimed to be leading a purely scientific movement.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:38 am |
    • Nonimus

      What do you mean "a few years back?" They're still at it. Every year there are new bills in states across the country, promoted ID or demoting Evolution: http://ncse.com/

      March 14, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  15. Mirrorview

    Has anyone here questioned our Intelligent design?
    I have and sometimes think our factory has some Quality control issues!

    March 14, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • Truefax

      I wish there was a like button!!

      March 14, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • Joe T.

      God must have created cancer then. Boy he really screwed the pooch. We should all be recalled.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • heh

      Lol, Yeah I have always thought if man was God’s creation, he isn’t very worthy of worship.

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

      fire the engineer too. the blueprints are all messed up. can I get a redo?

      March 14, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • ziegfeldf

      A human's breathing tube and eating tube cross in the back of the throat, which is why we sometimes choke. What genius or "intelligent designer" came up with that?

      Appendix, vestigial tail (coccyx), knees...shall I continue?

      And, judging from many of the posts, the human brain is still in need of a few design revisions!

      March 14, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • Nonimus

      Time for an upgrade already!

      March 14, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • isurewould

      You would be smart to learn what your "opponent" thinks. The book "Darwin's Black Box" makes a very compelling case for intelligent design, but I doubt any of you would bother to pick it up. You are too smug.

      Also, anyone who believes in intelligent design, or (creation....gasp) also believes in the corruption of mankind on every level. This would not just apply to sin (gasp ...again) as well as the physical, DNA, and molecular levels. Everybody knows that our bodies are constantly bombarded with disruptive and corrupting chemicals, radiation, and biological agents.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:58 am |
  16. Dude

    My problem with intelligent design is that they don't accept offshoots. For millions of years, the human genus was chugging along unimpressively, it experienced a few genetic bottlenecks due to disaster, but it chugged along. Then we see one point in which the apparent IQ shot up dramatically in a very short period of time. If you suggest to an "intelligent design" advocate that it could've been the result of extraterrestrial meddling, they will balk at you, to them it has to be the God of Abraham at work and no other force.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • Mike D

      If you propose to the scientific community that human intelligence shot up due to alien interference they'll say, "Prove it." Can you prove it?

      March 14, 2012 at 11:40 am |
  17. sherwin

    Francis Collins, Kenneth Miller, Simon Conway Morris and other christian scientists such as myself should be fired for their beliefs also but we are not. Why? Some would like to say that it is because we "bought" into evolution or are not "true christians". It is because we do not harass people, evangelize, and distribute religious videos AT WORK. Where is that tolerated in ANY workplace? Period. It is also because we love our faith and science. They drive each other. You can't be fired for that but respected.

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

      Well said sir.

      While I'm not religious myself, I'm happy to know that you "get it". It's also impressive that you've found, not only common ground between religion and science, but have found that when approached in the right way, they can actually benefit each other.

      I may not agree, but I can certainly respect that.

      Cheers.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • Nonimus

      Hear! Hear!

      March 14, 2012 at 11:55 am |
    • Chris

      Exactly!
      Religion and politics have a place, but not in the workplace (unless directly related to your work of course). Those are private beliefs and opinions that can be discussed, just not in the workplace with people who would be forced to listen when they really don't want to.

      March 14, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
  18. Joe T.

    Last time I checked different companies usually have employee policies put in place you agree to upon entering the workplace. I'm sure NASA has some sort of verbal hara-ssment policy. Sounds like this guy was hara-ssing people.

    On another note, religious (aka radical Christian) people want us to teach intelligent design in school. Which intelligent design version do they want taught? There are an awful lot of them. I guess we'd have to teach about every form of intelligent design from every religion for it to be fair.

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

      Yep, they'd have our kids being indoctrinated on a daily basis in their Christian madrassas , meanwhile, the rest of the world leaves us in their scientifically accomplished technical dust.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • Crad

      How about teaching different theories on our creation beside the unproven theory of evolution? How about aliens? Why teach ONLY evolution, when its only a theory like all the others? Our kids are being indoctrinated to believe its truth, when its not.. How about that? Hypocrite

      March 14, 2012 at 11:52 am |
  19. Qev

    The court finds the complainant GUILTY...of aggravated insult to his coworkers (and the rest of our) intelligence. Dismissed.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • U ARE A TOOL if you think BELIEVING in science makes you smarter than BELIEVING in GOD

      what intelligence? you have none!

      Has the big bang THEORY been proven? NO.

      Has the theory of evolution been proven a fact? NOPE.

      And what about that weird period where lamarckian evolution was the reigning scientific theory of it's day? LOL.

      #DUMB&LAZYpeoplethinkingScientisthavealltheanswers

      March 14, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • Joe T.

      Nobody said science has all the answers. Otherwise scientific research would stop. I would rather trust something that can be proven true/false rather than something that can't be. I don't understand how that makes one unintelligent. It's a good thing scientist were working hard in the past or you wouldn't have a computer to post your stupid opinions on.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      @U are a tool ... the theory of Religion certainly has not been proven while the basis of evolution (natural selection) is observed every minute of every day.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • Brian

      @ YOU ARE A TOOL....

      lol....so as usual, you have no answers and religion slides in to fill in the blanks with no explanation other than, "it must be God."

      Then again, your "screen name" shows your level of intelligence and lack of maturity, so my reply was probably futile anyway, as it will just soar over your head.

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

      Apparently the poster would have us believe that the ‘globe’ is flat, the sun (and all the other stars) orbits the earth—which is only 5k or so years old.

      And by the way…which, pray tell, of Noah’s sons was the unfortunate soul to have drawn the lot to “muck” the T-Rex pen? That man’s undeniable courage has gone unrecognized for FAR too long.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:59 am |
  20. tery

    Taking everything we know it boils down to the fact that you can't make something from nothing so we must believe that something always existed, the choices are matter or a creator.

    March 14, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • Joe T.

      Well nobody knows for sure. I wonder if we will ever find that out one day. It's a good thing we have science trying to learn and progress instead of just religion trying to keep things stagnant.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • relians

      good read, "a universe from nothing" by lawrence krause.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:38 am |
    • If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

      Why "MUST" our choice include an anthropomorphized creator?

      March 14, 2012 at 11:44 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.