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. Jason

    This isn't about religion or the first amendmant. This is about an employee disobeying his supervisors and creating an uncomfortable and unproductive work environment. It's common sense to leave your political and religious baggage at home.

    March 14, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • What Now

      Agreed. It is unprofessional.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:34 am |
  2. albie

    If there is a god, then why did he create people like Hitler and Santorum?

    March 14, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • intothemoonbeam

      Or Osama

      March 14, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  3. Jared

    Religion is poison.

    March 14, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • BoldGeorge

      Right...and Jesus slammed religious people as they were practicing religiosity instead of true commitment.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  4. Nathan

    Good for NASA for firing him. I would complain to HR about harassment if anyone were trying to distribute videos about their religious beliefs to me at work. It's just not the place for that.

    March 14, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  5. NCChris

    " he was among 246 employees laid off as part of a downsizing plan that affected 300 staffers"- THAT fact alone kills his case. Unless of course all the other 300 were just as rabid and in your face about their faith too....but I doubt that is what happened. The saying about don't discuss politics or religion at work is there for a reason. No sympathy for this clown.

    March 14, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  6. Banks M

    Clearly, the harassed in this case appears to be D. Coppedge for his belief in ID. Throw in the 'gay rights' into the mix and somehow the case becomes stronger against scientist, DC.

    This appears to be a case targeted bullying of the proponents of ID

    March 14, 2012 at 10:29 am |
    • Mel

      Appears to be a case of an ID believer harassing all his workmates. You try to rope your co-workers into watching your religious videos, you should be told to stop. If you don't stop the harassment, you should be fired. All they did was demote him into a more redundant position. Given that his blather was utterly unscientific, it does seem fair that he should lose his position as a scientist. For heaven's sake.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  7. Galielo2100

    NASA has a limited budget. It has a requirement for scientists. It has no requirement to salary religionists. Intelligent Design is religion, not science. IDers who claim ID to be science are basing the claim itself on religious belief, not empiricism.

    March 14, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  8. chemmajor

    NASA erred. They should have terminated him 15 years ago for lying on his resume about being educated.

    March 14, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • DJL

      Zing! Good one!

      March 14, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • John

      Typical pigheaded intolerance. "Everyone who disagrees with me is wrong." Science is about discovering truth, not declaring that we know everything there is to know, and that everyone else is a heretic.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  9. Jesucrisco

    If this wing nut actually believes in the psuedoscience of "intelligent design", he's probably incompetent.

    March 14, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  10. Sojourneerinfo

    Sounds like he asked for it. It also sounds like he was penalized for having unpopular views.

    March 14, 2012 at 10:27 am |
  11. Jonathan

    I don't understand the Cassini Mission and I think it was way to complicated for humans to create. Therefore it was created by God. All those people working on it were just wasting their time.

    March 14, 2012 at 10:26 am |
  12. Darwin

    bible thumpin dick head

    March 14, 2012 at 10:26 am |
  13. Gaunt

    Remove the actual topic for a moment.

    This man was harassing his fellow staff for YEARS, had numerous complaints filed against him, had been warned on many occasions, and making several people uncomfortable to the point where they were avoiding him, or unwilling to discuss anything non-work-related with him.

    Even after all this, he wasnt even fired, he was simply downsized along with 250 others. Frankly, that better than he deserved.

    Does it matter one whit what the subject of his harassing harangues was?

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

      That's what his employers allege was the case. They are not a disinterested party....will have to wait until the judge sorts it out. If their allegations are deemed to be true, then they were justified. Otherwise, not.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  14. olepi

    A sysadmin (not a scientist) is trying to force his views on his colleagues. After they finally complained to his boss, he was terminated. Now he's playing the victim card.

    Typical for the religious bigot.

    March 14, 2012 at 10:25 am |
  15. JewDome


    March 14, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  16. spencer

    while i do not agree with his views i feel he shouldn't have gotten fired, it not like he was ruining anything. This country is supposed to be free but if a man cant express his views with out fear of losing his job then this country is no more free than any other religiously oppressing country

    March 14, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • John Gabriel

      I hate all forms of religion. He probably was not fired because of his views, rather because he was harassing others.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:29 am |
    • Authority Zero

      Did you read the article? The complaints were for harassment in the work place. No one is stopping him from ‘expressing’ his views on his own time (that was even mentioned).

      March 14, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • WithReason

      You're assuming he actually got fired because of his beliefs, and not for other reasons. Having beliefs is fine. But, if the impede your ability to do your job, then you shouldn't have that job.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • Robert Kipling

      Have you seen those two videos? If you haven't, how can you say that you disagree with them. It wasn't that long ago a person would have been considered ignorant and unlearned if they didn't believe in Intelligent Design (i.e., creation) in our finest Universities INCLUDING Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Penn, Columbia, Brown and Dartmouth. And now people dismiss it without even looking at the both sides. No no, in our day our culture is not just ignorant. It is hostile to anything, ANYTHING, that points toward the God of the Bible because we are doing what many has been doing since the beginning of humankind. We've been pushing God to the outskirts of the universe and shaking our puny and filthy fists in His face saying, "keep sending the rain for the harvest but we will not have you in our world, and we will not be accountable to anyone but ourselves." And so, the people who founded our best schools, and without whom these schools and probably even the USA would not exist, would look at us in disbelief and say, "my how arrogant, my how ignorant." Why? Because it's really a matter of arrogance that has led to our present condition of ignorance and we are the ones who have become fools.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • renster

      The workplace is a place to work, not to proselytize. You are absolutely wrong that people have - or should have - a right to harass co-workers all day by plugging their own religion, politics, worldview, whatever. What this guy was speechifying about had absolutely nothing to do with getting his job done. So glad he was fired. It is next to impossible to fire people in the federal government, and this guy should be fined for filing a frivolous lawsuit.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • MK045

      At work, it's his responsibility to perform his job, not disrupt the work of others. I did not see anywhere in the article a statement that his job at JPL involved intelligent design or religious outreach. If co-workers and supervisors asked him to stop non-work-related activity they found disruptive, disturbing, or offensive and he did not, it is harassment. At work, perform your job. Proselytize on your own time.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • Dan

      Renster is absolutely right.

      This guy needs to be fined for filing such a lawsuit. When people file these types of suits, everyone suffers. The guy was harrassing people at work, so he needed to go. Bringing religious dvd's to work is so inappropriate that it boggles the mind.

      Robert Kipling,

      It was not long ago that most people in the U.S. believed in slavery. We have evolved, so should you.

      March 14, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
  17. Willie James

    Science has done more to move the world forward that all the religions combined.

    March 14, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • ForGoodOfAll

      yes, I agree.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:26 am |
    • Authority Zero

      Science will fly you to the moon, religion will fly you into a building.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  18. intothemoonbeam

    IF you elect idiot Santorum into office, Science will die a slow and painful death and the United States will fall far behind the rest of the world in scientific research and education. Vote for science.

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

      I agree. The guy is insane.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • What Now

      So true. We are already behind and far behind in math, science and health care.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • ncsteve

      "Science" is doing a pretty good job of killing itself. Climategate has proven that if you don't tow the line with the people funding your "research", then you face a hostile work environment, professional ostracism, and public ridicule. The more we learn about how "climate science" is conducted, the shakier it gets. Unless you drank the Kool-Aid.

      March 14, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • intothemoonbeam

      @ncsteve And you are clearly drinking the GAWD Kool-Aid

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

    And then in the next couple days we'll learn that he actually sucked at his job and he's just looking for attention

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

      It would appear that part is already in the article. It says that he was stubborn, refused to listen or do things in any way but his own, and it resulted in disruption of the team and errors. He'd been demoted, and then fired along with 245 other people which makes sense. If you've got to lay people off and you've got a trouble maker or someone whose performance has been in decline, it's pretty easy to decide who gets the axe. In the end, this really had nothing to do with his beliefs and everything to do with his creating a hostile work environment for everybody else. Given his support of Prop 8, I'm guessing he's a Republican which would imply that he's also against labor unions and, therefore, pro-at-will employment. Funny that he's engaging in what he likely politically considers to be a rather frivolous lawsuit.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:52 am |
  20. JamesG

    All I can say is " It's going by the book"

    March 14, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • Authority Zero

      Which book? There are so many and so many versions of the same book.

      March 14, 2012 at 10:33 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.