Published March 14, 2012
LOS ANGELES – Supervisors at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory harassed and demoted a high-level computer systems administrator who as a self-described evangelical Christian expressed his belief in intelligent design to co-workers, the plaintiff's attorney told a judge Tuesday.
Lawyer William Becker, on behalf of David Coppedge, delivered his opening statement to Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ernest Hiroshige in trial of the religious discrimination lawsuit his client filed in April 2010.
Coppedge maintains he was fired nine months later in retaliation for bringing the suit. Becker said his client was treated different because of his interest in religion.
But JPL attorney James Zapp said Coppedge was laid off as part of a staff reduction. He also said Coppedge had trouble getting along with other employees and became defensive when a supervisor tried to instruct him on avoiding confrontations with co-workers.
"The evidence will show that Mr. Coppedge was his own worst enemy because of his inability to listen," Zapp said.
Coppedge was an information technology specialist and system administrator on JPL's Cassini mission to Saturn. JPL demoted him for allegedly "pushing religion" by loaning interested co-workers DVDs supportive of intelligent design, according to his suit.
Believers of intelligent design say there is evidence of design in nature and challenge evolutionary theory that life is based on random chance.
JPL lawyers contend in their court papers that Coppedge harassed co-workers by forcing them to hear his opinions about intelligent design and Proposition 8, the gay marriage initiative.
They maintain the DVDs had nothing to do with Coppedge's demotion and that two JPL managers who were Christian -- like the plaintiff -- actually bought DVDs about intelligent design from him.
Becker said Coppedge had 11 years of outstanding work evaluations and that JPL's attitude toward him did not change until March 2009. He said that is when Margaret Weisenfelder, JPL's digital librarian, complained to the plaintiff's project supervisor, Gregory Chin, that Coppedge was bothering her by giving her DVDs on intelligent design and by allegedly insisting on expressing his viewpoints on the voter-approved ballot initiative that banned same-sex couples from marrying.
"It's come to my attention you've been harassing co-workers with your religion," Chin told Coppedge, according to Becker.
Coppedge contended that intelligent design had nothing to do with religion, but Chin became increasingly angry during the meeting and told Coppedge not to discuss his religious and political views on the job, Becker said.
A JPL human resources official interviewed Weisenfelder and other employees and concluded that Coppedge's behavior violated JPL's unlawful harassment policy and its ethics and business conduct policy, Becker said.
Coppedge was given a written warning and demoted from his team lead position, the lawyer said.
But Becker said there is no evidence Coppedge was hostile to anyone and that he was not immediately told who was making the accusations against him. He said the actions taken against Coppedge infringed on his religious freedom.
Zapp said the "team lead" classification was informal and did not provide Coppedge with more money or benefits. He also said Chin was hopeful he could persuade Coppedge to change his behavior before it escalated into a more difficult problem.
"Mr. Chin tried to coach Mr. Coppedge to work more effectively with others," Zapp said.
Chin was criticized by his own bosses for initially trying to work with Coppedge rather than take disciplinary action, Zapp said.
Coppedge was never told by anyone at JPL that he could not discuss religion and politics, Zapp said.
"He had the right to do it as long as he did it at the right times," Zapp said.
Coppedge and another system administrator were laid off because they were deemed less qualified than others who kept their jobs, Zapp said. Coppedge received two months severance pay, six months of paid benefits and help in finding another job, according to Zapp.
The written warning issued against Coppedge was eventually rescinded, but his team leader status was not restored and he filed suit a week later, Zapp said.
Coppedge joined JPL in 1996 through a contract with another agency and became a full-time JPL employee in 2003. He and and another systems administrator were eventually laid off as part of a staff reduction, according to JPL lawyers.
In a sworn declaration, Coppedge denied he was aggressive in expressing his opinions about religion, including his criticism through emails of the change in name of the 2003 Cassini Christmas party to a "holiday party."
"I was not pushy, scolding or demanding in these emails," he said.
"In fact, my purpose was to convince them to not be so politically correct. It wouldn't have made any sense for me to have been pushy."
JPL, a division of Pasadena-based Caltech, operates under a contract with NASA.