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Computer specialist contends his views cost him his job at JPL

A computer specialist rankled some of his JPL co-workers by pressing intelligent design and other issues at work. Now a judge must decide if that is why he was laid off.

April 30, 2012|By Ashley Powers, Los Angeles Times
  • David Coppedge is suing JPL, the NASA center in La Cañada-Flintridge, for wrongful termination. A judge heard closing arguments this month.
David Coppedge is suing JPL, the NASA center in La Cañada-Flintridge,… (Nick Ut, Associated Press )

David Coppedge's co-workers at one of the nation's most prominent scientific institutions didn't have to guess his theory as to how the universe was created. He offered to lend them DVDs advocating intelligent design.

An evangelical Christian, he also asked that the holiday potluck at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory be renamed the Christmas potluck and sparred with at least one colleague over their divergent views on Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in California.

Coppedge's zest for hot-button topics rankled some co-workers at the facility in La Cañada Flintridge, who complained about him to management. But did it eventually cost him his job?

That's the question a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge presiding over Coppedge's wrongful termination lawsuit is expected to decide in the coming months. JPL, which Caltech manages for NASA, contends Coppedge was laid off in 2011 as part of massive cutbacks because his skill set was outdated and his attitude obstinate.

"What happened to David Coppedge — really what David Coppedge did to himself — had nothing to do with intelligent design or religion but with his own stubbornness," defense attorney Cameron Fox said during closing arguments this month.

To anti-evolution forces, however, Coppedge is a warrior on the front lines of the national evolution debate. They've seized on his otherwise humdrum lawsuit, showering it with resources and publicity.

In fact, defense attorneys alleged in court papers that Coppedge and his supporters were pursuing the case in part to promote intelligent design. In general, its adherents say life is too complex to have stemmed from evolution alone and distinguish themselves from creationists by not tying their beliefs specifically to the Bible.

Coppedge found his lawyer, William Becker, through the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian group that's also helping fund Coppedge's defense. Becker has also worked with the Discovery Institute, a prominent intelligent design group based in Seattle and a key force in helping portray Coppedge as a victim of religious bigotry.

"There is a worldview war in this country," Becker said in an interview. "There's a battle between people who think religious people are trying to disrupt the integrity of the scientific method and those who know we're not."

The intelligent design crowd has won some victories in recent years, including a new law in Tennessee that allows teachers to question evolution and global warming in their classrooms. Opponents derided it as the "monkey bill," a nod to the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, in which a Tennessee man was prosecuted for teaching evolution.

But the attention lavished on the Coppedge case shows that the anti-evolution community is also invested in trying to win lower-level battles. For example, the American Freedom Alliance successfully sued the California Science Center after it canceled a screening of an intelligent design film in 2009.

Critics said it's a sign of desperation. "The creationists keep losing," said Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland. "They lost the science battle years ago." He said latching onto the Coppedge case feeds a "narrative of victimization" that paints science and academia as hostile to religion.

But Discovery Institute representatives said their strategy is sound. Any spat, however small, is another opportunity to air their views. The institute sent a spokesman to the Coppedge closing arguments to field questions from reporters, and one of its fellows has regularly blogged about the trial.

"It fits another tile in the mosaic that will eventually be recognized as demonstrating that the scientific 'consensus' against intelligent design is the product of intimidation and group think," fellow David Klinghoffer wrote before opening statements in March. "Coppedge has already contributed his tile."

For all the online buildup, the details of the Coppedge case are somewhat run-of-the-mill. Coppedge is a computer specialist who started as a JPL contractor in 1996. He was eventually brought onto the systems administration staff and given the title of "team lead." He worked on computer networks for Cassini, the first spacecraft to orbit Saturn and its moons.

A bespectacled, white-bearded man, Coppedge never hid his embrace of intelligent design. He maintained a website dedicated to it and sat on the board of Illustra Media, which produces intelligent design DVDs. He tried to get his co-workers to watch at least two of them: "Unlocking the Mystery of Life" and "The Privileged Planet."

In 2009, one co-worker balked. She said Coppedge's DVD had a sticky note that listed fellow colleagues and, next to one name, the phrase "try again." She complained to a supervisor, who told Coppedge to "stop pushing your religion," Coppedge said.

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