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. If horses had Gods .. their Gods would be horses

    I used to have a few of "those" where I worked too. We just laughed at them and went about our work. Ignore them and they'll go away .. just hopefully before they change laws that force us to listen to them.

    March 14, 2012 at 10:16 am |
    • Don in Iowa

      Yeah laws that force people to be stupid and ignorant should not be allowed, if you choose to be stupid and ignorant laws should be passed that force you to go hang out with those who dropped out of the 5th grade where you belong.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:18 am |
  2. RixR

    Not a scientist. A systems administrator. In return, NASA should sue Coppedge for being a nutcase. And Intelligent Design is not a religion (no more than misguidedly believing Man Will Never Fly, or We Didn't Go To the Moon, or The Earth is Flat).

    March 14, 2012 at 10:16 am |
    • Cedar Rapids

      "And Intelligent Design is not a religion "

      it is religon based, it ultimately boils down to 'god did it' no matter how much they try to wrap it up as 'science'

      March 14, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  3. Jorge

    Life and work are touchy enough without some attention-hungry shmoe who's over you trying to get in your face over personal beliefs and matters not job-related. Believe it, it's happened to me before and if gets chronic/out of control it can make your life a living hell, NASA was right to dump this out-of-line dork for harassment.

    March 14, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  4. Snake

    He ALMOST had a case.


    Sorry guy, but you voilated the JPL policy FIRST by intentionally bringing up your religious beliefs in the workplace, and then attempted to forward them by distributing faith-oriented materials. Since you violated the policy, you cannot sue JPL for enforcing the policy you violated by terminating you due to the violation.

    Law doesn't work like that.

    You lose, sorry. Next time, when your employer has a policy, realilze that it goes BOTH ways – both you AND the employer must respect the terms, it's not a one-way agreement for your own convenience.

    March 14, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  5. Frangible

    Then he deserved to be fired. A lawsuit is ridiculous and just drains NASA's already limited budget even further.

    Only a fringe minority of Christians refuse to accept the theory of evolution. What he did was not representative of a religion. Religious freedom means he gets to go to his fringe extremist church on Sunday, not that he gets to harass others.

    March 14, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  6. pasigiri

    Something from nothing? You can't get something from nothing because nothing is nothing. This is NOT HARD TO UNDERSTAND. Law of conservation of matter states that matter cannot be created or destroyed. Interesting. So some scientist EXPECTS me to BELIEVE his/her THEORY about some BIG BANG? We haven't even gotten into the formation of proteins, much less DNA and what not. And statistically, mathematically, all that is RANDOMLY just happened? Including the ability to EVOLVE (Note: why are so worried about global warming; wouldn't we just evolve to handle the temperature differences)???

    REALLY????? That takes MORE FAITH TO BELIEVE THAN ANY RELIGION MAN HAS EVER COME UP WITH!!! Any PERSON with a SHRED of common sense can see that SOMETHING or SOMEONE designed all that is.

    So here's the question: How do you take and accept something as absolute truth when it hasn't been proven to be true? Saying "well we don't have all the answers" doesn't cut it because either something is true or it's not true. And if you believe in this truth that has yet to be proven, and trust that it will all be logically explained, how is that any different than believe in God? Or any other religion for that matter?

    March 14, 2012 at 10:14 am |
    • Eric Collazo

      You should try reading a science book. Your assertions have all been addressed many times over. You are demonstrably wrong. Just because you don't understand evolution (or choose not to) does not mean that it is not true.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:19 am |
    • Chris

      2 Proposed Methods for the creation of the universe:
      Spontaneous Creation
      Spontaneous Creation caused by a god.

      Which one seems more plausible? How did this 'god' get created?

      March 14, 2012 at 10:20 am |
    • Chris

      Well said Eric Collazo

      March 14, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • Aezel

      Your grasp on how science works and physics is incredibly laughable. Go read a book, or otherwise just go back to your trailer park.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • JMM

      Whatever floats your boat. Intelligent design is just a re brand of creationism. It s a free country for people to believe what they want, yet it is these religious freaks that feel the need to project their morals and values on everyone else. What happened to religion being a private family matter???

      March 14, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • YeahOk

      There are no absolute truths. However, there is a difference between claiming you believe you know someone committed a murder and using evidence to show a high degree of probability as to whom committed the murder.

      Also, you seem to have a hard time believing that something could have came from nothing, but yet you believe your God did just that. Science doesn't claim that something came from nothing, but came from an unknown starting point from unknown conditions before an apparent big bang. Your claim seems to be nothing more than someone/something saying abracadabra and everything came into existence.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • Cedar Rapids

      "Note: why are so worried about global warming; wouldn't we just evolve to handle the temperature differences"
      yeah, you have no clue how evolution operates really do you?
      "Any PERSON with a SHRED of common sense can see that SOMETHING or SOMEONE designed all that is."
      The irony of a religious nut talking about having common sense.

      And seriously, you guys need to stop trying to claim the theory in a scientific sense means the same as theory used in every day life.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • pasigiri

      WOW!!! And NOT ONE PERSON ANSWERED WHERE DID THIS ALL COME FROM. All I've been told was go read a book written by man, the same beings that "wrote" the bible. From what I see, the bible makes MORE sense than anybody who replied to my comment. AND I'm NOT RELIGIOUS ... as some asserted I am. Science hasn't even fully explained death, let alone how the body works completely while it's still alive. Cure cancer, HA!!! Start small and advance past a flu shot please.

      Look when man "EVOLVES" to actually create something from nothing, please email me.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:02 am |
  7. hilreal

    IF Santorum gets elected get used to this! Guys like this will be heading our scientific agencies!!!!

    March 14, 2012 at 10:14 am |
  8. intothemoonbeam

    The only reason we have religion is because thousands of years ago our ancestors looked up at the sky and saw the Sun, Moon and the Stars and could not make sense of it, so they created religion and Gods.

    Now human beings are intelligent enough to make sense of the cosmos and how it works and we know that there is a science behind it all and not a supreme being.

    March 14, 2012 at 10:14 am |
    • PraiseTheLard

      intothemoonbeam wrote: "Now human beings are intelligent enough to make sense of the cosmos..."

      Don't be too confident of the level of intelligence that is allowed to function in the general population... we see plenty of evidence that most of the time true intelligence is suppressed into conformity with the prevailing "approved" social theory.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • HeyZoose

      So tell me wise sir, how did the Big Bang happen? What caused something to appear from nothing?

      Religion is man made but the truth of the matter is, something beyond us sparked the known universe.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:26 am |
    • intothemoonbeam

      @HeyZoose I encourage you to read Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time" and "The Universe in a Nutshell" that will tell you everything you need to know about the Big Bang and how nothing became something.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  9. Pips

    He was asked several times to stop, and he did not. If NASA brings any coworkers to trial and they back up the boss, he has no case.

    March 14, 2012 at 10:14 am |
  10. Randy

    Intelligent design scientist is an oxymoron.

    March 14, 2012 at 10:14 am |
    • Vinay

      Or just a moron

      March 14, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  11. tanthonyS

    I would have fired this religious fanatic as well. Tell him to take his street-corner preaching to the street corner.

    March 14, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  12. babooph

    Sort of like a nun who turns tricks ,suing the church for ....

    March 14, 2012 at 10:13 am |
  13. GodIsNotIntelligent

    Intelligent design? What is intelligent about reserving Earth for satan before creating man? What is so Intelligent about murdering your own son to save humanity after thousands of years have passed since you created man? Any intelligence found in the appendix, wisdom teeth, the placement of the vas deferens or the path of the laryngeal nerve? What about the tremendous fossil record of animals never mentioned by god, but must have obviously been created by him? Were all of those animals divine "oopsies"?

    March 14, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • stvnkrs10

      Intelligent design does not equal Christianity. Next time think before speaking.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • GodIsNotIntelligent

      The videos he was distributing were created by Christian directors. The video content supports Christian agendas. Obviously, intelligent design doesn't equal Christianity, but he obviously is Christian. So, my comment is directed towards him and like minded individuals, not every creationist from every faith.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • Cedar Rapids

      "Intelligent design does not equal Christianity. Next time think before speaking."

      ID equals 'god did it' and invariably those that claim ID are christian. I think its a pretty good assumption.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:37 am |
  14. Jared

    Maybe if he had prayed harder, he wouldn't have gotten fired...

    March 14, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  15. SEAL Team Alpha and Omega

    Everyone should check out the book, "Darwin's Black Box." Pretty interesting read.

    March 14, 2012 at 10:10 am |
  16. The Dude


    Only a fool would believe

    March 14, 2012 at 10:10 am |
  17. The Dude


    March 14, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • Groo


      March 14, 2012 at 10:12 am |
    • Groo


      March 14, 2012 at 10:14 am |
  18. Alan

    Intellegent design is a crutch used by insecure people to explain things they can't understand.

    March 14, 2012 at 10:09 am |
    • 1ofTheFallen

      So you think that believing in the Big Dirt Ball in the Sky (Big Bang sounds cooler but same meaning) is better than believing in the Man in the Sky. Many of the theroies which were taught as scientific fact have been proved wrong. The primordial ooze is the worst and scientist gave up on it decades ago. Now scientist say life must have come from outter space. That way they don't have to prove how life got started and then got into outter space. Very convenient.

      Just like 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 10:42 am |
  19. Groo

    Isn't it ironic that the Jet Propulsion Labs was created in part by the works of an occultist named Jack Parsons who even participated in an occult ritual with none other than L. Ron Hubbard (the founder of Scientology) to bring about the birth of the Antichrist? So they kicked this guy out because his views conflicted with Science? I have to lol at that if any of them knew what one of their founding fathers was into.

    March 14, 2012 at 10:09 am |
  20. Bill

    CNN needs to change the deliberately-immflamatory headline they gave this story. This guy was not a scientist at all. He's a ground computer network administrator. Period.

    March 14, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • John

      Thank you! Was wondering when someone would mention that.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • Scott

      Im a computer network administrator...its a science, you get a degree in Computer Science. Science is the study of something by trial and error, whats more trial and error than working with computers. lol

      March 14, 2012 at 10:35 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.