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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. Contracts

    Remember this employment agreement gives us the right to fire you at anytime without cause and justification including and not limited to you being a Christian!

    March 14, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • asdf

      Can't do that. See: Civil Rights Act, EEOC.

      March 14, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • Guest

      Incendiary statement, but wrenches the context. Plainly it is not this man's Christianity that is at issue. Rather, the dispute seems to be over whether he can use his job as a platform for proselytizing to a captive audience. He seemingly wishes to preach his religious views to those who are not free to leave.

      March 14, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • Contracts

      Looks like some tools are not familiar with contracts

      March 14, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
    • asdf

      Looks like somebody is a smug 1L with no understanding of employment discrimination law. A company that even printed out a contract like that would be liable under the Civil Rights Act, because it is illegal to discriminate in employment decisions on the basis of religion.

      March 14, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • Capn.Kirk

      Contracts is trying to say the employment agreement says JPL can fire you without cause or justifcation. Meaning they can use any mundane reason to terminte you whether it was the real reason or not.

      March 14, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
  2. DellStator

    What did the article say, that Intelligent design has nothing to do with religion.
    Yet, that's the basis of the case?
    Yet every supporter of the case is a fundemental religous organization.
    When the case goes against him and his supporters, they should have to pay court costs, lost time to JPL / NASA staff dealing with case, etc.. See if they'd sue knowing they'd pay if they loose.
    Sounds like the root of this is they guy had a god complex, he was always right, always telling people what was right, and started to get stuff wrong, make errors, and please, JPL and NASA have enough problems with errors. I don't want my tax money spent on salaries for people that spend their time at work, on my dime, WORKING, and getting their work done, right, not distributing DVDs and discussing theory.

    March 14, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
  3. Scot

    While I believe it is fine for people to "feel" their belief in God, it is personal and should not be preached in the work place. If a person feels he must "preach" it can be done in his church or on a sidewalk not in the work place. ID is a product of man just as science is but in science it can be proven where as ID is just in the mind of the person.
    I doubt he was fired for his "feeling" but more of his:" preaching" !

    March 14, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  4. KWDragon

    Let's take the topic of Intelligent Design off the table for a minute. What you had here was a disruptive employee who continually pushed his religious beliefs on his co-workers, about which they complained. He harassed his co-workers and created a hostile work environment. It doesn't matter if the topic was intelligent design, abortion or neo-paganism, this does not belong in the workplace. Not only should he have been fired, but he probably should have been fired sooner.

    March 14, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • Scot

      AMEN !

      March 14, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • Jason

      YES!

      March 14, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
  5. I M

    When one fires a " scientist" who advocates intelligent design from a job involving scientific theories and methodology, this is not discrimination. You're not persecuting them over their religious beliefs. You're firing them for sticking to a viewpoint that is demonstrably false, in the face of overwhelming evidence that they are wrong. Scientific truth simply does not matter to an ID proponent. One who still denies evolution at this point is making it clear that once they've decided something is true, they will insist upon it no matter how thoroughly it is disproven. Such a person is not a scientist at all, no matter what degrees they may have. They are a fanatic. If a person working in a laboratory setting makes it clear that he will not change his mind when proven wrong, he is a liability. When that lab is run by NASA, and lives depend on your decisions, it would be irresponsible not to fire him.

    March 14, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  6. asdf

    The most obvious problem with the "intelligent design" theory (if you would call it that, I think of it as a presumption that some people hold) is that we are not intelligently designed. We have entirely vestigial body parts. Our hips aren't shaped right – ever seen an animal give birth? it just freaking falls out, no problem. Our backs are messed up from being bipedal. Your Vegas nerve runs all the way from your brain down around your heart and then back to your brain for no reason. This is true of giraffes too, which means the nerve is like 20 ft long. The reason this happened is because it's a hold over from fish – where the distance is minimal, not because god is a bad engineer.

    March 14, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  7. Guest

    What if this guy had been pushing Hare Krishna literature or the Watchtower on his co-workers? Would our opinions be the same? Different? Why or why not?

    March 14, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • Jason

      Bringing your religious views into the workplace and trying to push it on anyone will and should get you fired at any job for any religion. If you did this at any job you would be fired.

      March 14, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  8. NonScientist

    Say “God did not create humans and animals” is true. Doesn't the work of some humans on cloning and stem cell, demonstrates that it can be done?

    March 14, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • Jason

      Cloning is pretty different from creating...

      March 14, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • Capn.Kirk

      No.

      March 14, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • UrBFFJill

      Reverse engineering is not creating. The only synthetic life form to date are a bacterium whose genome was synthesized from small pieces of DNA with special tag sequences representing signatures and historical literature and a colorimetric marker added for ease of screening the final product. The building blocks were not made from their basic elements and another bacterium was hijacked as a starting kit of proteins and other necessary metabolites and such. Plus, this does not support creation, but merely emphasizes the power and advancement of technology and information gained through reason in our scientific community.

      March 14, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  9. Nii

    If u understand the difference between eternal life and immortality as used in Christianity please explain. ATHEISTS ONLY. Rational brains can solve this in seconds I believe.

    March 14, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • wakeupandsmellwhattherockiscooking

      Christians believe that a mortal person has an immortal soul, and that this immortal soul can be provided with a resurrected, "sanctified" (which effectively means purified, unblemished, and apparently lacking genitalia) body ... the term Eternal Life tends to be used to describe the idea that a "True Believer" in Christ (a term open to many, many interpretations) will have their immortal soul implanted in that resurrected body and they will get to live for all time with Christ, apparently singing a lot and doing very little else.

      March 14, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
  10. GiveMeABreak

    Where did god come from????

    March 14, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • Nii

      Many gods. Do u even know which one u r talking about? I wud answer u but for the fact that u didn't ask correctly and I don't want to answer my own question.

      March 14, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • GiveMeABreak

      Ok

      Where did god come from, please?????

      March 14, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • Capn.Kirk

      The imagination of mankind

      March 14, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • wakeupandsmellwhattherockiscooking

      Current theory is that Saul suffered an epileptic seizure on the road to Damascus, so the odds are some other similar neuronal misfire.

      March 14, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  11. Jason

    This just sounds like mental problems masquerading as religion. The guy clearly was a problem and sounds like its a good thing he got fired. IE is religion. It's deceitful religion at that because it pretends not to be. Several courts agree I believe. I find the notion that scientists are "hiding god" or "just not looking" rather hysterical. This just in! If you work with scientists DONT bring your religion into it. Other things not to whine about at your science job include: Questioning Gravity.

    March 14, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • Jake

      I imagine any religious person who tried to work at a company like JPL would inevitably develop mental problems (I should say, additional mental problems). It must be incredibly stressful to work in an organization that actively dispels religious myths if that is something you believe in.

      March 14, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
  12. Jake

    Religious money is funding this guys case. They are attacking one of the most elite scientific organizations in the world, because the more these types of organizations discover, the less relevant religion becomes. They want organizations like JPL to be forced, by law, to employ people who actively try to disrupt the progress JPL is trying to make.

    This is not about discrimination, this is about religious money attacking science.

    March 14, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  13. Kishore

    Sure, there is no intelligence behind this universe. Sure,life magically arose out of a "prebiotic" soup. Sure, given enough time, hydrogen will turn into an iPad.

    March 14, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • Ritcher

      Ain't that funny! and junk yards can become assembly lines, Go home people!
      Why do we even have to work if everything magically can create itself?!?!

      March 14, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • Jason

      You're like a mental slave. WOW.

      March 14, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • Kishore

      Nah, I just make more money than you fools, that's all. LOL!

      March 14, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • Capn.Kirk

      You are reversing the aurguments. Science dos NOT claim life magicaly arose from anythng. That's what religion claims. Again, science does not state that some element will transform into an iPad. That would be a miracle. That's what religion claims. You claim the that magic and miracles are ridiculous and then you try to say that science uses them when it is religion that makes use of them. You defeat yourself

      March 14, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • Kishore

      Not exactly Kirk. Just as you need intelligence to create an iPad out of what is essentially pure energy, so do you need intelligence to create the universe out of pure energy. It's nothing but energy transformations, that's all. How that energy is molded is up to whoever is molding that energy.

      March 14, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • Capn.Kirk

      First, iPads are created out of matter not energy. Second you do not need intelligence for matter or energy transformations. These transformations can happen randomly as well as intentionally. Science can demonstrate that complex things can arise from simple random combinations. Go caving sometime and look crystal formations. They can be incredibly complex and yet form from dripping water and simple force molecular cohesion..."Electrons attracting and repleling each other". Doesn't get much simpler than that and no intelligence was at work during their creation. Very few assumptions here.

      Your theory that God cretaed things requires an awful oot of assumptions, not the least of which is that he can magically summon the universe or transform energy as you put it to fit his will.

      YOur theory of

      March 14, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • Kishore

      I said what is "essentially" pure energy Kirk. Matter= energy? E=Mc2?

      March 14, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
    • Kishore

      One more thing. I didn't say God created the universe. You are putting words in my mouth. I said there is intelligence behind the universe and it does look "designed" going by the patterns we find everywhere.

      Nice talking to you.

      March 14, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • Capn.Kirk

      LOL E=MC2 does not mean that Matter = Energy. It describes the amount of energy required to move matter at a given speed

      March 14, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • Kishore

      Give it up dude. That equation has nothing to do with "moving" anything. It is mass-energy equivalence relation. Matter has mass so yes energy is being converted to matter and matter to energy all the time. Bye!

      March 14, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • Capn.Kirk

      Its a shame Kishore, you sound like you want to understand things, but unfortuantely you want to believe in something even more. You haven't taken the time to really undertand the concepts you are trying to discuss. Whatever you would like to call teh force behind Intelligent Design theories, God or whatever, the results are the same; They don't really explaing anything just that some force we can't understand did everything. These theories just leave us right back where we started however.

      Q: How did the universe come into being
      ID A: An intellgent force created it. (Intelligent Design Answer: ID A )

      Q: How did the intelligent force create the universe?
      ID A: ??????

      March 14, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
    • Kishore

      Kirk – I could say the same about multiple universes, multiple dimensions and strings. Just by saying "random" and "spontaneously" you guys are explaining nothing either.

      March 14, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • Capn.Kirk

      Exccept that's not how science describes something, say the creation of life on earth. Science doesn't say it just randomly and spontaneously formed. Again, that is more the religous argument. Science says, we beleive methane and ammonia combined as the reult of an electric discharge,probalby lightning, which formed amino acids. You see we don't have the exact process but science attempts to describe it in specifc terms that would allow reproducible results.

      I would guess ID assumes the same facts but then adds that some "intelligent force" put the ammonia and methane together and shot lightning at it. Do you see how the "intelligent force" part is unecessary. It just adds assumptions that are not needed.

      March 14, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
  14. Manmohan

    There is no creator of the universe. Creativity is God. Be it in the form of solar system supporting life on planet earth or in the works of a scientist who is researching, Creativity a force , a constance presence is eternally at work. Science may never meet God, but the intelligent scientists are the ones who will find the truth sooner than others.

    March 14, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
  15. Kenny Fichts

    This man wasn't fired -specifically- for believing in Intelligent Design, he was fired for -handing out ID DVDs to his coworkers-. If he didn't attain permission to hand those DVDs out then he deserved to get fired. Anyone passing around DVDs without express consent from his employer, especially about things like this is in violation.

    March 14, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
  16. Rick

    Wonder how many of these 'evolutionists' were lying about the fired scientist??? Foul!

    March 14, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • Mysteries of evolution

      Looks like a massive setup to silence a person who did not agree with the theory of evolution.

      March 14, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • asdf

      Ok – so you have one guy claiming he was fired improperly and a whole company of people saying he was fired for being a jerk, and you immediately assume its a giant conspiracy.

      March 14, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • TR6

      Has anyone else noticed that the religious right seems to have more than the average number of conspiracy buffs?

      March 14, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  17. JeffinIL

    Evolution does not address creation or how life arose at all. It only addresses how life adapts to changing environments over time. Arguing Intelligent Design vs Evolution is not comparing the same concepts at all.

    March 14, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • Jake

      That's true. Evolution is a scientific theory supported by factual evidence. Intelligent Design is a made up idea supported only by religious funding. You are absolutely right that they don't belong in the same conversation, but many religious people (Rick Perry, for example) suggest that evolution is an unproven concept and Intelligent Design is an alternative.

      March 14, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  18. Glider2001

    Excuse me, but the last time I looked a "system administrator" was not a scientist.

    March 14, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  19. T A Martin

    Thinking on it... From an intelligence standpoint, humanity is a very poor design.
    – High center of gravity with very small footprint, extrodinarily easy to knock a human over.
    – Exposed reproductive organs without protective covering.
    – Between the brain and major organs the neck... How many movie and TV characters get killed by a broken neck (especially in spy flicks)?

    An intelligent designer would have given us a long stiff tail that reached the ground for a third point of support, a method of shielding the male reproductive organs, and a bony spur partly encircling our necks. (or similar devices)

    Maybe we should call it imbecile design.

    March 14, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • willy

      I like your comment. It is almost as if the designer designed humans to live in a protected environment instead of the world we live in today.

      March 14, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  20. Byrd

    Must be why all those loose asteroids, meteors and comets are still hanging around out there to end all life on Earth with a single wallop. Truth be told, I couldn't have created an existence this screwed up if I tried and see no intelligence whatsoever behind the design. Anyone that naive deserved to be fired. Maybe he can find a job as a priest, or some other equally worthless occupation.

    March 14, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
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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.