LOS ANGELES – NASA's latest mission: self defense.
A former team leader from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory -- the head of the Cassini mission exploring Saturn and its moons -- is expected in court Tuesday morning over allegations that he was wrongfully terminated because of his belief in intelligent design.
Opening statements in the lawsuit by David Coppedge were expected in Los Angeles Superior Court after lawyers spent Monday arguing several pretrial motions. Coppedge told Fox News he initial filed suit because he felt that “a grave injustice had been done.” The reasons behind the case have since changed, however.
“Then I got fired. That added a retaliation aspect to this case,” Coppedge said.
Coppedge, who worked as a "team lead" on the Cassini mission, claims he was discriminated against because he engaged his co-workers in conversations about intelligent design and handed out DVDs on the idea while at work.
“All I did was share some DVDs with coworkers, people I had worked with for years,” Coppedge told Fox News.
Coppedge lost his team lead title in 2009 and was let go last year after 15 years on the mission. He described accusations that he was essentially using his position to advocate religious beliefs as “foolish.”
“There were only two of us let go at the time on a team of six, and I was the most senior in the group with the most experience and history on the team. And the other one was near retirement," Coppedge said.
Intelligent design is widely understood to be the belief that a higher power must have had a hand in creation because life is too complex to have developed through evolution alone. Coppedge's lawyer clarified the scientists beliefs, downplaying religious aspects.
"There is basically a war on anyone who dissents from Darwin and we've seen that for several years."
- John West, associate director of Center for Science and Culture, Discovery Institute
“Intelligent design does not propose that there is a higher power, it doesn’t even suggest what the intelligent designer is or could be. It only explains that there are examples of design in nature that we can related to our own common experiences,” attorney William Becker told Fox News.
It was the common belief that intelligent design is a religion that may have led to the firing, the lawyer said.
"David was discriminated against based on the perception that he was advocating a religious idea, a religious dogma,” Becker said.
In an emailed statement, JPL dismissed Coppedge's claims. In court papers, lawyers for the California Institute of Technology, which manages JPL for NASA, said Coppedge received a written warning because his co-workers complained of harassment.
They also said Coppedge lost his team lead status because of ongoing conflicts with others.
Caltech lawyers contend Coppedge was one of two Cassini technicians and among 246 JPL employees let go last year due to planned budget cuts -- cuts that Coppedge argued took place months earlier.
The case has generated interest among supporters of intelligent design. The Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian civil rights group, and the Discovery Institute, a proponent of intelligent design, are both supporting Coppedge's case.
The National Center for Science Education, which rejects intelligent design as thinly veiled creationism, is also watching the case and has posted all the legal filings on its website.
Coppedge's attorney, William Becker, contends his client was singled out by his bosses because they perceived his belief in intelligent design to be religious. Coppedge had a reputation around JPL as an evangelical Christian, and interactions with co-workers led some to label him as a Christian conservative, Becker said.
In the lawsuit, Coppedge says he believes other things also led to his demotion, including his support for a state ballot measure that sought to define marriage as limited to heterosexual couples and his request to rename the annual holiday party a Christmas party.
Coppedge is seeking attorney's fees and costs, damages for wrongful termination and a statement from the judge that his rights were violated, said Becker.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.