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Opposing lawyers sum up JPL 'intelligent design' case

After written arguments are submitted, judge will determine if employee lost job due to religious discrimination or work performance issues.

April 18, 2012|By Daniel Siegal, daniel.siegal@latimes.com
  • Former JPL worker David Coppedge, left, and William Becker appear in court at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in Los Angeles. Closing arguments were submitted this week.
Former JPL worker David Coppedge, left, and William Becker… (Cheryl A. Guerrero…)

Attorneys argued Monday that it was either religious intolerance or workplace incompetence that drove systems administrator David Coppedge from a post at Jet Propulsion Laboratory last year.

Monday’s arguments capped a five-week trial in Coppedge’s lawsuit against the NASA lab in La Cañada Flintridge, in which he claimed he was removed from his job in 2011 because of his advocacy of the theory of intelligent design of the universe.

“This is a series of retaliation — a series of subtly damaging injuries all starting from David’s reaction” to discriminatory actions taken by supervisors, said William Becker, Coppedge’s attorney.

Becker has argued throughout the case that when Coppedge was told to stop lending DVDs on intelligent design or discussing California's anti-gay marriage referendum, Proposition 8, he was being persecuted for his Christian beliefs.

“They don't have a policy against discussing religion and politics, so they essentially singled him out. He was forbidden from doing something everybody else was allowed to do,” Becker said.

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Becker and Coppedge have painted the case as a crucial test of religious expression in the scientific community.

“Throughout the scientific and academic worlds in this country, if you dare insert what somebody perceives to be your evangelical Christian values - if they think you're doing that - heads roll,” Becker said before the trial began.

Concurrently, JPL's lawyers have steadfastly insisted Coppedge's tribulations were self-inflicted, the product of stubbornness and a refusal to listen.

JPL attorney James Zapp said more than 15 people had complained to Coppedge's supervisors over the years about his customer service, saying he was stubborn and hard to deal with.

Administrators repeatedly told Coppedge the issue was how he was interacting with people, not what he was saying, Zapp said.

“[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.

Cameron Fox, representing JPL, said Monday Coppedge was lucky to have been employed on the Cassini mission to Saturn as long as he was — 14 years — given complaints about his work and his clashes with co-workers.

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