Opening Statements Begin in JPL Intelligent Design Lawsuit

David Coppedge claims he was let go because of his intelligent design beliefs, but attorneys for JPL cite other issues

By Jonathan Lloyd
|  Tuesday, Mar 13, 2012  |  Updated 1:31 PM PDT
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In this March 7, 2012 photo, David Coppedge, left, is shown outside Los Angeles Superior Court with his attorney, William Becker.

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Opening statements began Tuesday afternoon in the case of a former Jet Propulsion Laboratory computer systems administrator who claims he was demoted because he expressed support for intelligent design to co-workers.

David Coppedge, an information technology specialist and system administrator on  JPL's Cassini mission to Saturn, filed the lawsuit in April 2010. He claims he was demoted from "team lead," then fired, after loaning co-workers DVDs that supported intelligent design -- the theory that some type of intelligent being had a hand in designing certain features of the universe. Life is too complex to have developed through evolution alone, according to design theorists.

The original complaint filed in April 2010 stated that Coppedge has a "sincere interest in the scientific evidence behind life’s origin, an interest that led to an appreciation for ID." Coppedge engaged co-workers after hours in discussions about the subject, but never forced anyone to take a DVD, according to the complaint, which alleges religious discrimination and retaliation, harrassment and wrongful demotion.

The DVDs were from Illustra Media, a non-profit that produces videos that examine the case for intelligent design. Titles include "The Privileged Planet," "Darwin's Dilemma" and "The Case for a Creator."

Coppedge is a board member of Illustra Media, according to court documents. He blogs about the topic of intelligent design on his website.

Coppedge is "not bashful about what he believes," according to court documents filed in December by attorneys for the plaintiff.

But attorneys for NASA's JPL contend that Coppedge harassed co-workers and received a written warning about his interactions with co-workers. He was let go last year because of planned budget cuts that affected nearly 250 JPL employees, according to attorneys.

In a trial brief filed last week, JPL attorneys said "Coppedge's belief in ID and his religious views had nothing to do with the employment actions at issue in this case."

The brief also mentions a March 2, 2009 complaint from one of Coppedge's co-workers. The co-worker told a project supervisor that Coppedge's discussion of non-work related topics made her feel uncomfortable, according to the court document.

The supervisor provided Coppedge with what the brief described as a "helpful heads-up" regarding the co-worker's complaint. A "heated discussion" ensued, leading to the April 2009 written warning, according to the court document.

Attorneys for the plaintiff described the situation as "a sequence of ill-conceived disciplinary decisions."

Coppedge is seeking attorney's fees and costs, damages for wrongful termination and a statement from the judge that his rights were violated. The case will be heard in Los Angeles Superior Court.

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