A California judge has tentatively ruled in favor of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in a wrongful termination lawsuit brought by a former computer specialist, David Coppedge, who alleged he was singled out in part because of his belief in intelligent design.
Superior Court Judge Ernest Hiroshige issued a provisional ruling saying he was leaning toward finding in favor of JPL, which had argued at trial that David Coppedge was let go because he was combative and did not keep his skills sharp, not because of his belief that life is too complex to have developed through evolution alone. Hiroshige, who presided over the civil trial in April, ordered a final ruling drawn up and issued within 30 days.
Coppedge, a self-described evangelical Christian, had worked on NASA’s Cassini mission to explore Saturn for 15 years until he was dismissed in 2011.
His attorney argued that Coppedge was let go because he promoted intelligent design in the workplace, handed out DVDs on the theory and argued with a colleague about Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in California. In his lawsuit, Coppedge claimed he was demoted in 2009 and then let go for engaging his co-workers in conversations about his views. Coppedge’s attorney argued at trial that a supervisor told Coppedge to “stop pushing your religion,” and that Coppedge was retaliated against for disputing a written warning and filing a lawsuit against the lab.
The case has been closely followed by intelligent design supporters, but Coppedge’s attorney maintain the one-paragraph tentative ruling should not be seen as a referendum on the theory. He has said, “it does not specify the court’s reasoning and it would be foolhardy to discern from its general language that the court had anything to say about the validity of intelligent design as a scientific theory or as a religious belief… We don’t believe it was about religious belief, but David’s co-workers perceived it as one and that’s equally offensive under the law.”
At trial, JPL attorney Cameron Fox contended Coppedge was a stubborn and disconnected employee who decided not to observe warnings to get additional training, even when it became clear the Cassini mission would be downsized and computer specialist positions eliminated. Coppedge often was confrontational and insensitive to customers and colleagues, who had complained about his behavior and his advocacy of intelligent design, Fox said.
Coppedge is active in the intelligent design domain and runs a website that interprets scientific discoveries through the lens of intelligent design. His father wrote an anti-evolution book and founded a Christian outreach group. Coppedge also is a board member for Illustra Media, a company that produces video documentaries examining the scientific evidence for intelligent design. The company produces the videos that Coppedge was handing out to co-workers.
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the law forbids religious discrimination in the workplace when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, fringe benefits, and any other term or condition of employment. An employer does not have to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs or practices if doing so would cause undue hardship to the employer. An accommodation may cause undue hardship if it is costly, compromise workplace safety, decreases workplace efficiency, infringes on the rights of other employees, or requires other employees to do more than their share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work.
If you or someone you know believes they have a workplace complaint, call Don Ho Law at 714-748-7715 to speak with an attorney who can discuss your options with you.
Published by Don Ho Law. Don Ho is an attorney in Orange County, California who practices criminal and employment law.