A Case about Workplace Discrimination and Retaliation over Intelligent Design

SUMMARY
An employee at JPL was disciplined, demoted, and terminated for sharing DVDs about intelligent design (ID) with co-workers. The case is reminiscent of the documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (2008) featuring Ben Stein.

THE PLAINTIFF
David Coppedge worked for 14 years as a System Administrator (SA) for the Cassini program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California. For 9 consecutive years he was Team Lead of the SA’s, in charge of most of the computers for the prestigious mission to Saturn. David worked on Cassini from before launch (October 1997) into the Second Extended Mission (2011).

WHAT HAPPENED?
Coppedge would, occasionally, share DVDs on intelligent design with willing co-workers. The DVDs, produced by Illustra Media (for whom David is a board member and researcher) present scientific evidence for design without reference to religion. They include:
Unlocking the Mystery of Life, examining evidence for design in life, the cell and DNA.
The Privileged Planet, exploring evidence for design in the Earth and the universe (this documentary includes interviews with 4 JPL scientists).

He had also given out a few flyers in favor of California’s Proposition 8 (the traditional marriage initiative) before the 2008 election.

Triggering Incident. On March 2, 2009, one co-worker complained to Coppedge’s office manager about the DVD, saying that she felt harassed by David’s “religion and politics” (referring to ID and Prop 8). The manager confronted David and accused him of “pushing religion,” claiming a “number of people” had complained. He shouted, “Intelligent design is religion!” and ordered Coppedge to stop discussing religion or politics in the office under threat of termination.

Coppedge responded that he would comply, but stated that the order got into issues of freedom of speech and religion and could be construed as creating a hostile work environment. He did not file a complaint. The manager, however, immediately reported him to other managers and Human Resources (HR). HR investigated Coppedge for harassment. On April 13, he was issued a Written Warning, alleging he was in violation of JPL’s Harassment and Ethics Policies. He was simultaneously demoted from Team Lead.

LEGAL ACTION
While pursuing internal remedies at JPL and appealing the discipline, Coppedge called the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). William J. Becker, Jr., an ADF affiliate attorney, responded, serving JPL a Demand Letter in Sept. 2009. JPL did not respond for 7 months. Becker filed suit on April 14, 2010, alleging discrimination for “perceived religion” (even though ID is science, not religion).

Termination. Eight months later, on January 24, 2011, Coppedge was abruptly terminated and escorted off lab. Subsequent depositions showed that the decision makers had been meeting with JPL counsel specifically about the lawsuit and layoff process from the time the lawsuit was filed. In March, Becker amended the lawsuit to include Retaliation. Later that year, Judge Ernest M. Hiroshige denied the Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment, and trial was set in California Superior Court.

Trial. Both sides opted for a bench trial rather than a jury. The trial began March 9, 2012, and continued for 5 weeks through April 16, with 22 witnesses testifying. Defense attorneys argued the case had nothing to do with ID, but that Coppedge was let go due to a planned reduction in workforce and for performance/communication issues. Plaintiff witnesses disputed the performance complaints, while Becker argued that Coppedge’s treatment followed a pattern of discrimination against advocates of intelligent design.

Media. The case attracted international media attention and was monitored by the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), a pro-evolution group, whose mission is to keep “creationism” and ID out of public schools. The Discovery Institute, a pro-ID think tank in Seattle, supported the case, along with ADF. Coppedge and Becker had to file more briefs and wait 9 months for the verdict.

VERDICT
In January 2013, Judge Ernest M. Hiroshige of the California Superior Court ruled against Coppedge on all 10 counts, offering no explanation. JPL then demanded $51,000 in court costs. An appeal was discussed (as a state case, the highest appeal was California Supreme Court), but with Coppedge now broke, out of work and facing cancer surgery, and with little hope of success on appeal, he was advised by ADF to settle with JPL for elimination of court costs. Nevertheless, public awareness of ID was raised by this case. Coppedge’s story is scheduled to be included in Vol. 3 of Slaughter of the Dissidents by Dr. Jerry Bergman.

— More information on the Coppedge vs JPL case can be found on www.EvolutionNews.org, a Discovery Institute blog. --