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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. ELH

    The folks that believe have no proof nor do those that do not believe. The existence of the fossil record does not preclude the existence of God, nor does the complexity of the human brain prove the hypothesis that God designed humankind. In short, people will believe what they will and they will present all manner of evidence to support that belief. It is an argument without end and will never be resolved.

    Disruption in the workplace is not acceptable. I have the right to not be constantly bombarded with the religious or political views of a coworker. Nor may I visit the same on others. Mr. Coppedge had two options: Shut up or be terminated. He chose to continue haranguing his coworkers and thus suffered the consequences. He should toddle on and find a place where he can work with kindred spirits.

    March 14, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • jimtanker

      People who dont believe in a god dont need proof. The onus of proof is on the person making the claim. ie. "There is a god".

      Since there is NO evidence that there is a god or that Jesus ever existed then the consensus of any rational person is that there is no god.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:03 am |
  2. WiscBadger

    I hope the ACLU is going to defend his right to free speech!

    March 14, 2012 at 9:57 am |
    • James PDX

      The ACLU does not believe that people have complete freedom of speech in the workplace. Employers are allowed to set a code of conduct. My employer highly encourages us not to discuss religion or politics during work time. If I did so and consistently offended or made my colleagues feel uncomfortable, I would be justifiably fired.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • jimtanker

      Being a scientifically illiterate dolt is not a free speech issue.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • obviousisobvious

      There's a huge difference between free speech and harassment. If he was as overbearing and combative as they claim he was then he stepped over the line.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:04 am |
  3. DarthLawyer

    Disruptive proselytization is not protected behavior.

    March 14, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  4. boboTheClown

    it's unprofessional, end of story. NASA is a workplace and not a bar.

    March 14, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  5. Barry G.

    David,

    You have my full support.

    March 14, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  6. truthseeker

    Who verily knows and who can here declare it, whence it was born and whence comes this creation?
    The Gods are later than this world's production. Who knows then whence it first came into being?
    He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it all or did not form it,
    Whose eye controls this world in highest heaven, he verily knows it, or perhaps he knows not.
    – Rig Veda

    March 14, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  7. pat

    You get him to explain why there are not more than one intelligent designer that collaborated to make the universe. When he tells you he believes in one designer then you tell him that is a religious view.

    March 14, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  8. Pat

    FoxNews network invites all people fired for being insane. So the good news is he has a chance to be employed

    March 14, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  9. Pope on a Rope

    The article doesn't get to the point until the very end. He was one of 300 employees laid off due to downsizing. But because he was a bad employee who didn't follow direct orders, he was somehow discriminated against.

    March 14, 2012 at 9:56 am |
  10. Bob Hands

    And have any of you said to yourselves, that perhaps he was just using this as an excuse to get his job back? Perhaps he was just fired because simply he was in a group of people who were being laid off because the company needed to save money.

    March 14, 2012 at 9:56 am |
  11. Mike D

    Sounds like the guy was annoying everyone and finally got fired. If he went as far as going around and handing out religion dvds to his coworkers (which is also kind of creepy).

    March 14, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  12. Joe

    This isnt a bias against intelligent design, it is a bias against stupidity... There is no god, get over it.

    March 14, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  13. Peter

    You were hired to work, not spout your beliefs – especially when you were warned that you were arousing resentment and complaints among coworkers and told to knock it off.

    I would have fired you immediately.

    March 14, 2012 at 9:54 am |
  14. Bob Hands

    The Vatican has it's own observatory with priests who have degrees in Astronomy and Physics. The Vatican is using science. Whoa. Neat concept huh? Some of the most influential and famous scientists throughout history have believed in "God". Anyone with a knowledge of U.S. or world history would know this....but as we all know, the majority of the people who read cnn.com aren't the sharpest tools in the shed.

    March 14, 2012 at 9:54 am |
    • James PDX

      Tangent much?

      March 14, 2012 at 9:58 am |
    • pat

      The issue is whether the scientist knows the difference between science and religion.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • Jimmy

      Including the guy who is suing. Yes, you have the right to believe what you want. Doesn't mean that you have a right to talk about it in the work place.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • frank

      "famous scientists throughout history have believed in "God"." Yes, because as Galileo could attest to, you had no choice.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • obviousisobvious

      For years religion tried to control science to stay relevant. Now that they cannot control it they try to incorporate it. I mean, they've come out to say that alien life is a possibility. Why? So if life is discovered on another planet they can stay relevant.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • Merry Prankster

      Same goes with those commenting!

      March 14, 2012 at 10:14 am |
  15. Daniel

    I'm a Christian and reading between the lines, it seems like this guy is in the wrong. I see nothing wrong with someone sharing their faith with others. But to constantly push your faith on people in the workplace is out of line. And it sounds like he was doing this in an aggressive and over the top manner. Which, ironically, is no way to have people be receptive to your own beliefs.

    March 14, 2012 at 9:53 am |
    • YeahOk

      As an atheist, I can respect that statement.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  16. Pat

    He will now be a FoxNews commentator.

    March 14, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  17. UglyTruth

    The socially accepted insanity of religion takes many forms.

    March 14, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  18. jimtanker

    This person is not a scientist if he believes in "intelligent design". There is no proposed mechanism for ID and no way that it can be tested by falsification. NOT science.

    March 14, 2012 at 9:53 am |
  19. dichotomydan

    Someone made a good post yesterday about religious beliefs (it was the article about Doonesbury's comic strip re: abortion). What it basically said was that personal belief in religion (or personal belief in anything for that matter) only extends as far as the end of your nose. Nobody has any right to force their beliefs on others, whether it's pregnant women or, in this case, the scientific community. You are free to believe whatever you want, but the moment you try forcing your agenda on anyone else, you've overstepped the secular boundaries of society. To think that Coppedge tried to do this with scientists is laughable–definitely the wrong crowd. What was he thinking?

    March 14, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • Daniel

      In respect to abortion, there are millions of atheists who think it is wrong as well...so that's probably not the best example...

      March 14, 2012 at 9:55 am |
    • Jimmy

      Except for the fact that their religion disagrees with this concept, and tell them it is their duty to extend beyond their nose.

      If some tells you they do not value logic, what logic can you offer to convince them they should?
      If a person does not believe in evidence, what evidence can you present to prove to them that they should?

      March 14, 2012 at 10:02 am |
  20. Ryan

    I am proud of the scientist for standing up for what he believes in. Talking about this to other employees does mean Forcing religion down peoples throats. This country has such double standards when it comes to free speech and freedom of religion. Anyway, way to go man, I know you will find another great career and you will be blessed for standing up for your convictions.

    March 14, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • James PDX

      And then you'll be fired again for being a complete ass.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:00 am |
    • pat

      Yeah,man, even if he were a Muslim standing up for his convictions.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:07 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.