A former computer specialist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory spent much of his free time advocating for the idea that a higher intelligence must have had a hand in creation.
Now, a judge will decide if his commitment to that belief cost him his job.
Closing arguments in the wrongful termination lawsuit filed by David Coppedge against Pasadena-based JPL began April 16 after a five-week trial that generated intense interest among proponents of intelligent design – the idea that life is too complex to have evolved through evolution alone.
The case will be decided by Superior Court Judge Ernest Hiroshige after both sides agreed to forgo a jury.
Coppedge, an evangelical Christian who worked on NASA’s Cassini mission exploring Saturn and its many moons, claims he was demoted then let go for promoting his views.
The former team leader alleges he was discriminated against because he engaged his co-workers in conversations about intelligent design and handed out DVDs on the topic while at work.
Coppedge lost his team leader title in 2009 and was let go last year after 15 years on the mission.
Coppedge was called to a meeting with a supervisor on March 2, 2009, and told to “stop pushing your religion,” his attorney William Becker said in his closing argument. The supervisor later claimed he was trying to help Coppedge, but Becker said the statement smacked of religious intolerance.
“Imagine if employees were told, stop pushing your gay agenda or stop pushing your feminist agenda, your civil rights agenda?” Becker said. “This is just another way that … shows it’s prejudice and it’s another shifting explanation to provide cover.”
JPL denies the claims. In court papers, lawyers for the California Institute of Technology, which manages JPL for NASA, have said Coppedge received a written warning because his co-workers complained of harassment.
They also said Coppedge lost his leader status because of ongoing conflicts with others.
Caltech lawyers also say Coppedge was one of two Cassini technicians and among 246 JPL employees let go last year due to planned budget cuts.
Coppedge, who began working for JPL as a contractor in 1996 and was hired in 2003, is active in the intelligent design sphere and runs a website that interprets scientific discoveries through the lens of intelligent design. His father authored an anti-evolution book and founded a Christian outreach group.
He is also a board member for Illustra Media, a company that produces video documentaries examining the scientific evidence for intelligent design. The company produces the videos that Coppedge was handing out to co-workers, said Becker, his attorney.
His main duties at JPL were to maintain computer networks and troubleshoot technical problems for the mission. In 2000, he was named “team lead,” serving as a liaison between technicians and managers for nearly a decade before being demoted in 2009.
He sued in April 2010 alleging religious discrimination, retaliation and harassment and amended his suit to include wrongful termination after losing his job last year.
Coppedge is seeking attorney’s fees and costs, damages for wrongful termination and a statement from the judge that his rights were violated.