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Former JPL employee claims he faced discrimination for airing creationism views

Agency's attorney said David Coppedge was his own worst enemy while at JPL.

March 14, 2012|By Daniel Siegal and Jason Wells
  • Former JPL worker David Coppedge, left, and William Becker appear in court at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in Los Angeles on Tuesday, March 13, 2012. Coppedge is suing the NASA agency, saying that the agency terminated him because he discussed with fellow colleagues his belief in intelligent design. (Cheryl A. Guerrero/Staff Photographer)
Former JPL worker David Coppedge, left, and William Becker…

Former Jet Propulsion Laboratory worker David Coppedge testified Wednesday that questions about the origin of life ran deep in his family long before he worked for JPL or sued the La Cañada Flintridge lab for allegedly discriminating against him because of his belief in the theory of intelligent design.

A former systems administrator on NASA's Cassini mission to Saturn, Coppedge claims he was improperly demoted and eventually fired for sharing DVDs about intelligent design — the idea that the universe is a creation of an intelligent agent, such as God — with co-workers.

Attorneys for JPL said Coppedge had a history of work-related complaints against him and that he was let go for reasons unrelated to his personal views.

On Wednesday Coppedge said his father, James Coppedge, was an ordained minister with a Master's degree in chemistry who wrote a book critiquing the theory of evolution.

“My dad explored the possibility of getting a living cell by chance,” said Coppedge.

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“The research he did into DNA, proteins and how a cell functions shows you not only can't get a cell by chance, you can't get a single functional protein by chance.”

Representing JPL, attorney James Zapp said during his opening remarks Tuesday that Coppedge was his own worst enemy while at JPL.

More than 15 coworkers complained to JPL supervisors about Coppedge, Zapp said. They were concerned about his alleged inability to work effectively with others, Zapp said, not his views on the origins of the universe or Proposition 8, California's initiative banning gay marriage.

“[They] said, ‘We have no problem with people discussing religion or politics in the office, as long as it's not unwelcome or disruptive,'” Zapp said.

Coppedge's attorney, William Becker, said Tuesday his client was told he risked losing his job if he discussed religion or politics at all.

“Mr. Coppedge was barred from engaging in the same kinds of activities involving religious and political expression that other employees at JPL were permitted to engage in,” Becker said.

Becker said Coppedge, who was first demoted in 2009, was the subject of no workplace complaints from 2003 to 2008.

The case is being tried without a jury before Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ernest Hiroshige.

On Tuesday, attorneys for JPL have asked Hiroshige to ban the media from witnessing the testimony of Coppedge's former coworkers.

Zapp said they will be expected to testify about their religious beliefs and that it would be a violation of their privacy rights to have the media present.

“It's unfair to put these people through that kind of exposure on these sorts of personal subjects,” Zapp said Tuesday. “They didn't bring this lawsuit. We're trying to protect employees who are innocent in this process.”

Hiroshige rejected the request Wednesday afternoon, but did not offer his reasons in open court.

Coppedge's attorney, William Becker, said the judge will limit questions regarding the religious or political beliefs of JPL workers to those that are relevant to interactions with Coppedge.

daniel.siegal@latimes.com

jason.wells@latimes.com

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