Attorneys for a NASA mission specialist, an evangelical Christian who claims he was demoted and then fired for discussing his beliefs on intelligent design, are expected to make their opening statements in a court in California Monday.
A trial involving Jet Propulsion Labs and former employee David Coppedge, who worked for NASA for 14 years as an information technology specialist on the Cassini mission to Saturn before being demoted, began last Wednesday. Opening statements are likely to begin Monday in Los Angeles Superior Court.
Coppedge alleges he was discriminated against because he spoke to his colleagues about intelligent design, a belief that an intelligent power is responsible for the world, and that life did not come about by random occurrences. He also gave DVDs to his co-workers while at work. As a result, he says, he was stripped of his "team lead" title in 2009 and was fired last year.
William Becker, Coppedge's attorney, says his client had a reputation around JPL as an evangelical Christian and other interactions with co-workers led some to label him as a Christian conservative, The Associated Press quoted him as saying. However, "he did not go around evangelizing or proselytizing," he added. "But if he found out that someone was a Christian he would say, 'Oh that's interesting, what denomination are you?"
Coppedge's lawyers have also pointed out that no action was taken against other JPL employees for expressing similar views in opposition of intelligent design. "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," Becker argued.
The former NASA employee also said in his lawsuit that his support for conservative issues also contributed to his demotion. He backed a state ballot measure seeking to define marriage as between a man and a woman, and he requested that the annual holiday party be named as a "Christmas party."
"He's not apologizing for who he is. He's an evangelical Christian," Becker clarified.
Christian law firm Alliance Defense Fund and the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which promotes intelligent design, are backing Coppedge's case.
"It's part of a pattern. There is basically a war on anyone who dissents from Darwin and we've seen that for several years," said John West, associate director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute, according to AP. "This is free speech, freedom of conscience 101."
Coppedge has claimed he was never told by a co-worker that his discussion of intelligent design was unwelcome or disruptive to their work. But his supervisor has stated that other employees complained about his actions, alleging they were harassing in nature and disruptive to the workplace, and Coppedge received a written warning prior to his demotion.
The National Center for Science Education, which rejects intelligent design, has rejected Coppedge's claims.
"It would be unfortunate if the court took what seems to be a fairly straightforward employment law case and allowed it to become this tangled mess of trying to adjudicate scientific matters," Programs and Policy Director Josh Rosenau noted, as reported by AP. "It looks like a pretty straightforward case. The mission that he was working on was winding down and he was laid off."
ADF said in a statement that Coppedge had 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.'"