Like many of his colleagues at NASA’s taxpayer-funded Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Ca., David Coppedge is a mild-mannered, technically-minded employee. He began working at JPL in 1996, and in 1997 he joined the Cassini mission, one of the most ambitious space exploration missions ever planned. It successfully sent an unmanned robotic spacecraft to explore Saturn and its moons.
In 2000, Coppedge received a promotion to “Team Lead” system administrator, serving as a high-level system administrator, overseeing a wide range of computer networks vital to the Cassini mission with “super-admin” access. He has been a faithful, highly regarded JPL employee, leading occasional tours of the lab. As an outreach speaker, he presented Cassini’s findings to astronomy clubs and civic groups.
Coppedge also happens to be an avid supporter of intelligent design (ID), a scientific theory which holds that some aspects of the universe and life are best explained by an intelligent cause rather than an undirected cause, such as natural selection. The theory takes a strictly scientific approach and is not based upon any religious argument.
Coppedge is actively involved with the ID movement. He sits on the board of directors for Illustra Media, a Southern California-based documentary production company that produces high quality films expounding the science supporting design in nature. These films include Unlocking the Mystery of Life, which presents the case for ID from biological complexity, and The Privileged Planet, which argues that the universe and our solar system support design because their “fine-tuning” allows life to flourish. The films, widely available on DVD, contain only scientific content and feature credible Ph.D. scientists arguing for ID. Yet, it was Coppedge’s support for these two DVDs that led to a serious conflict at JPL.(2)
For years, Coppedge offered these pro-ID videos to co-workers at JPL in a non-aggressive, respectful manner. If his colleague declined to watch the DVD, he dropped the matter. But in early 2009, one of Coppedge’s supervisors learned of his distributing pro-ID videos among JPL employees. After yelling at Coppedge and accusing him of “pushing religion,” his supervisor ordered him to cease distributing the DVDs.
Coppedge felt singled out and harassed, and he expressed this to his supervisor. Coppedge later learned that JPL’s human-resources department had started investigating the matter. But the investigation was not what he expected.
In April 2009, Coppedge was called before two different JPL supervisors, who informed him that rather than investigating Coppedge’s supervisor for harassment, Coppedge was the target of an investigation that charged him with creating a hostile work environment. The company’s investigation guidelines grant employees certain procedural rights. Coppedge, however, was advised of the nature of the accusations, the investigation procedures, the outcome of this investigation, and the verdict all at the same meeting – a gross violation of JPL’s Procedures for Investigating and Resolving Unlawful Harassment Complaints.
In the end, Coppedge was demoted and threatened with losing his job if he persisted in purportedly “unwelcome” and “disruptive” discussions of intelligent design. He was condemned and punished without being afforded a genuine opportunity see the evidence and respond to it. To this day, JPL has refused to inform Mr. Coppedge of the specific factual basis of their allegations. In effect, it was a trial of secret evidence.
Notably, taxpayer-funded JPL permits a wide-range of informal communications among employees on controversial topics, including the expression of viewpoints hostile to ID. But it was Coppedge’s non-hostile, friendly communications about ID that were singled out for censorship.
On April 15, 2010, Coppedge filed suit against JPL and California Institute of Technology, which manages JPL, in California State Superior Court in Los Angeles, alleging religious discrimination and retaliation, harassment, and wrongful demotion.(3) He is represented by William J. Becker Jr., a Los Angeles-based First Amendment attorney from The Becker Law Firm.
JPL is affiliated with NASA, a government entity, but it is managed by California Institute of Technology, a private entity. Coppedge’s case does not implicate the First Amendment, however, because his suit was filed in California State Court under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), which allows more relief than federal law and protects against religious discrimination. Coppedge’s amended complaint lists all causes of action under the California Constitution and California code.
The case is peculiar because Coppedge holds, quite correctly, that ID is a scientific viewpoint and not a religious one, and yet he is alleging religious discrimination due to JPL’s restrictions on his pro-ID speech. But the epistemological status of ID is not at issue in the case; rather, the lawsuit looks into the mind of the employer, which openly charged Coppedge with “pushing religion” and creating a hostile work environment by discussing ID. In essence, since JPL deemed that ID is religion and then punished Coppedge on the basis of that belief, the suit argues that protections against religious discrimination under FEHA.
The case is not entirely dissimilar from an asymmetry in the law explored in a recent article I published in Liberty University Law Review:
If selective enforcement of the law is a hallmark of tyranny, then we should be exceedingly troubled by both the constitutional implications and hypocrisy of the evolution lobby – behavior that opposes advocating [views like] ID … on the grounds they are religious viewpoints, but expressly endorses public schools inhibiting, opposing, and disapproving of those purported religious viewpoints.(4)
While this case lies outside of the public school arena, one could likewise argue that when employers maintain that ID is religion, they cannot refuse to grant ID advocacy the full protections of laws prohibiting religious discrimination. Employers can’t label ID as “religion” and then expect to be exempt from religious discrimination laws.
The reality of course is that ID is not religion, but science. How much more, then, should Coppedge’s speech advocating ID be protected at a top taxpayer-funded scientific institution like JPL, whose mission includes studying the origin of life and the universe? Whether ID is deemed science or religion, Coppedge’s speech is protected. Either way, advocating for ID is apparently a bridge too far for a NASA agency’s administrators.
(1) Luskin is Program Officer in Public Policy & Legal Affairs for the Discovery Institute. In addition to his law degree, Luskin holds a Master’s in Earth Science and has been published in multiple law reviews; Journal of Church and State; Geochemistry, Geophysics, and Geosystems; and Progress in Complexity, Information and Design. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(2) Facts of Coppedge’s case are derived from the First Amended Complaint, available at www.liberty.edu/libertylegaljournal/ … .pdf.
(3) David Coppedge v. Jet Propulsion Laboratory et al., Case No. BC435600.
(4) See Casey Luskin, “Zeal for Darwin’s House Consumes Them: How Supporters of Evolution Encourage Violations of the Establishment Clause,” Liberty University Law Review, Vol. 3(2): 403-489 (Spring, 2009).