For 15 years, computer specialist David Coppedge worked as a “team lead” on JPL’s Cassini mission, which explored Saturn and its many moons. During that time, he also freely engaged co-workers in conversations about the theory of intelligent design, the anti-evolution theory that the universe and life on earth was created by a higher power.
Coppedge was demoted from his "team lead" status in 2009, and then let go the following year. Now, he’s suing JPL for wrongful termination, claiming discrimination because of his Evangelical Christian beliefs.
"This is simply and plainly an act of intolerance, bigotry and ignorance of David's views. In particular ignorance to David's religion," said William J. Becker, Coppedge's attorney.
In addition to espousing intelligent design, Coppedge says he was discriminated against for sharing his views on same-sex marriage and for lobbying to re-label the company’s annual holiday party a “Christmas Party.” JPL maintains that Coppedge had received written warnings because other employees claimed he was harassing them.
"My guess is that JPL, like most other workplaces, is a workplace that tolerates a non-trivial amount of political discussions among people," said Professor Eugene Volokh of the UCLA School of Law. "If somebody comes up at a workplace and tells me to vote for Obama, whom I don’t support, I might not want to hear that, but I don’t have so any constitutional rights or legal rights, at least up until the point when it happens every day and involves threats or retaliation, to stop that."
JPL insists that Coppedge's dismissal came when his mission was ending and he was no longer needed, not because of his religious beliefs. The case is being closely watched by intelligent design advocates, who claim that Coppedge’s right to free speech has been violated. “There is basically a war on anyone who dissents from Darwinism,” said John West of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which supports Coppedge’s suit.
A representative from JPL did not join the discussion, but a spokesperson for the company provided the following statement: "The suit is completely without merit and we intend to vigorously fight the allegations raised by Mr. Coppedge."
Opening statements begin today in Los Angeles Superior Court.
Is this a case of religious discrimination, or a straightforward, budget-related termination? Do a person’s personal beliefs have a bearing on their job performance? Would Coppedge have kept his job if he’d kept his ideas to himself?
Eugene Volokh, Gary T. Schwartz Professor of Law at the UCLA School of Law
William J. Becker, attorney representing David Coppedge