A trial is starting in just days on a claim by a space scientist that he was demoted for expressing his views on intelligent design, the theory that the universe and life are too complex to have randomly erupted from a puddle of sludge on some prehistoric landscape.
The case is a response to a punishment handed down to David Coppedge, a worker at the NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, which sent the unmanned spacecraft Galileo to Jupiter and dispatched a ship named Dawn to orbit asteroids Vesta and Ceres.
The case will be tried starting Wednesday in Los Angeles, where the Superior Court of California earlier refused to rule in favor of the lab without a trial. The court determined there is sufficient evidence for a jury to consider.
The court then found “there are triable issues of fact as to whether plaintiff’s demotion, written warning, negative performance evaluations, and ultimate termination were adverse employment actions. … While the written warning or negative performance evaluations may not be actionable in isolation, a trier of fact would be entitled to consider them as a part of a generalized discriminatory response to plaintiff’s religious views or protected activities.”
“A trier of fact would be entitled to disbelieve defendant’s stated reasons for the adverse employment actions,” the court opinion continued. “A trier could find it suspicious that defendant initially investigated plaintiff for workplace harassment, issued a written warning that was later rescinded, and demoted plaintiff for reasons separate from the alleged workplace harassment. The shifting nature of defendant’s response to the alleged workplace harassment could cause a trier of fact to question the legitimacy of the demotion and written warning.”
Coppedge was an information-technology specialist and systems administrator on the lab’s Cassini mission to Saturn, which has been described as the most ambitious interplanetary exploration ever launched.
Images recently released from the project reveal lightning on Saturn.
“For the offense of offering videos [on intelligent design] to colleagues, Coppedge faced harassment, an investigation cloaked in secrecy and a virtual gag order on his discussion of intelligent design,” said attorney Casey Luskin of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture in describing the conflict.
Luskin serves as a consultant to the Coppedge lawsuit, which is being handled by Los Angeles First Amendment attorney William J. Becker Jr. of the Becker Law Firm and includes allegations of free-speech violations and wrongful demotion.
Also involved is the Alliance Defense Fund, or ADF.
ADF reported that the taxpayer-funded JPL punished Coppedge on the basis of allegedly “pushing [his] religion,” ignoring the fact that the scientific theory he discussed with willing co-workers makes no reference to religion and has many non-religious adherents.
The Cassini project by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab captures the image of lightning on Saturn (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)
Coppedge was a high-level “team lead” technical specialist before his demotion and later removal. The California Institute of Technology runs JPL under a contract with NASA.
“Employees shouldn’t be threatened with termination and punished for sharing their opinion with willing co-workers just because the view being shared doesn’t fit the prevailing view in the workplace,” said Becker.
“Mr. Coppedge has always maintained that intelligent design is a scientific theory, but JPL has illegally discriminated against him on the basis of what they deem is ‘religion,’” Becker said.
WND reported when the case was launched that Coppedge is suing for religious discrimination and harassment, retaliation, violation of his religious rights and wrongful demotion.
“Intelligent design is not religion, and nothing in the DVDs that Coppedge shared deals with religion,” said Luskin. “Even so, it’s unlawful for an employer to discriminate against an employee based on what they deem is religion.”
Among the coming JPL projects is Aquarius, which is to offer the first-ever global maps of salt concentrations in the ocean surface needed to understand heat transport and storage in the ocean.
Its Deep Space 1 left Earth in 1998 and tested an ion engine that could power future solar-system explorers.
The case alleges Coppedge’s supervisors demoted and humiliated him for advancing ideas that superiors labeled “unwelcome” and “disruptive.”
The controversy reached a boiling point in 2009 when a supervisor angrily harassed Coppedge, claiming “intelligent design is religion” and that Coppedge was “pushing religion.”
Coppedge’s complaint about that harassment resulted in a retaliatory investigation and “severe limitations” on Coppedge’s free-speech rights, the case explains.
The actions against him continued, even though supervisors eventually admitted they had no complaints about him. Other employees were allowed to discuss whatever topics they chose, the case explains.
The complaint said, “Intelligent design offers scientific evidence that life’s development is best explained as reflecting the design of an intelligent cause, citing mainstream research in biology, cosmology and paleontology.”
The DVDs included “Unlocking the Mystery of Life” and “The Privileged Planet.”
The Discovery Institute notes this is just the latest in a series of disputes involving intelligent design.
Previously, the California Science Center in Los Angeles, a state agency, was sued following its “discriminatory cancellation” of a contract to screen an intelligent-design film.
At Iowa State in 2006, supervisors denied tenure and forced out a distinguished astrophysicist for co-authoring a book on intelligent design in cosmology.
In 2005, supervisors at the Smithsonian investigated, harassed and demoted an evolutionary biologist for editing a pro-intelligent-design article in a peer-reviewed technical journal.
And in the University of Idaho in 2005, the university’s president banned faculty on campus from teaching against evolution-theory orthodoxy.
“Anyone who thinks that today’s culture of science allows an open discussion of evolution is sorely mistaken,” said John G. West, associate director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. “When it comes to intelligent design, private and government-run agencies are suppressing free speech.”