LOS ANGELES – A former computer specialist with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory was laid off because he was combative and didn't keep his skills sharp — not because he advocated for his belief in intelligent design while at work, an attorney said Monday in a case that plays on the tensions over the controversial origins-of-life concept.
David Coppedge, who worked on NASA's Cassini mission exploring Saturn and its many moons, sued JPL for wrongful termination in a case that has generated intense interest among proponents of intelligent design — the idea that life is too complex to have evolved through evolution alone.
Closing arguments ended Monday after a five-week trial. The case will be decided by Superior Court Judge Ernest Hiroshige after both sides agreed to forgo a jury.
The judge must also review written arguments from both sides before making a ruling, a process that could take several weeks.
Coppedge, a self-described evangelical Christian, claims he was demoted then let go for engaging his co-workers in conversations about intelligent design and handing out DVDs on the topic while at work. Coppedge lost his team leader title in 2009 and was let go last year after 15 years on the mission.
Coppedge was a stubborn and disconnected employee who decided not to heed warnings to get additional training, even when it became clear the Cassini mission would be downsized and computer specialist positions eliminated, defense attorney Cameron Fox said.
He often was confrontational and insensitive to customers and colleagues, she said.
"The testimony has shown a stark difference between the way Mr. Coppedge thought he was perceived and how others perceived him. We've heard testimony from David Coppedge's managers ... that he was stubborn and he didn't listen," Fox said.
"What happened to David Coppedge — really what David Coppedge did to himself — had nothing to do with intelligent design or religion but with his own stubbornness."
That interpretation differs dramatically from Coppedge's version of events. His attorney, William Becker, said in closing arguments that Coppedge was told by a supervisor to "stop pushing your religion" and then retaliated against for disputing a written warning and filing a lawsuit against JPL.
The supervisor who made the comment claimed he was trying to help Coppedge after a colleague made a formal complaint about his advocacy for intelligent design, but Becker said the statement smacked of religious intolerance.
"Imagine if employees were told, stop pushing your gay agenda or stop pushing your feminist agenda, your civil rights agenda?" Becker said. "This is just another way that ... shows it's prejudice and it's another shifting explanation to provide cover."
In court papers, lawyers for the California Institute of Technology, which manages JPL for NASA, have said Coppedge received a written warning because his co-workers complained of harassment. They also said Coppedge lost his leader status because of ongoing conflicts with others.
Caltech lawyers also say Coppedge was one of two Cassini technicians and among 246 JPL employees let go last year due to planned budget cuts.
Coppedge, who began working for JPL as a contractor in 1996 and was hired in 2003, is active in the intelligent design sphere and runs a website that interprets scientific discoveries through the lens of intelligent design. His father authored an anti-evolution book and founded a Christian outreach group.
He is also a board member for Illustra Media, a company that produces video documentaries examining the scientific evidence for intelligent design. The company produces the videos that Coppedge was handing out to co-workers, said Becker, his attorney.
His main duties at JPL were to maintain computer networks and troubleshoot technical problems for the mission. In 2000, he was named "team lead," serving as a liaison between technicians and managers for nearly a decade before being demoted in 2009.
He sued in April 2010 alleging religious discrimination, retaliation and harassment and amended his suit to include wrongful termination after losing his job last year.
Coppedge is seeking attorney's fees and costs, damages for wrongful termination and a statement from the judge that his rights were violated.