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JPL worker fired over intelligent design?

March 12, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
A former employee is suing NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for discrimination, claiming he was let go for his views on "intelligent design" versus evolution.

The Cassini Mission is a breakthrough for JPL and Caltech scientists in the study of the planet Saturn. As a spacecraft was in orbit, a computer systems administrator was allegedly engaged in his own project.

Plaintiff David Coppedge is an advocate of intelligent design, a view of creation that rejects the theory of evolution.

"The consensus can be wrong and scientific consensus has often been wrong," said Coppedge.

Coppedge alleges that JPL, Caltech and his supervisors violated his right to free speech because of scientific intolerance and his conservative religious views.

"I shared what I'm interested in. I'm interested in origins just like JPL is," said Coppedge.

The defense says the content of Coppedge's opinions were not the issue. Rather, it was his manner. JPL says 15 project managers complained about him. They said Coppedge persistently engaged the Cassini scientists in conversations that were unrelated to his job, which was to maintain computers and work stations.

"Mr. Coppedge, I believe the evidence will show, is someone who lacks self-awareness and doesn't really know how he comes across to people. One of the people he's accusing of discrimination is a man who had protected him for years, tried to coach him for years on this issue," said James Zapp, an attorney for JPL and Caltech.

Coppedge's position is that he was polite and was trying to enlighten the scientists.

"It was something that should've been interesting to anybody working there on the same mission," said Coppedge's attorney, Bill Becker.

About the termination, JPL says it happened as Cassini entered a new phase and that computer specialists, such as Coppedge, knew two years earlier that layoffs were coming.

"They had to choose the people who had the strongest skills on a relative basis and even Mr. Coppedge, in his testimony, acknowledged that position that the two employees who were retained were stronger in important areas than he was," said Zapp.

Coppedge himself will take the stand to press his case in the trial, which is set to begin Tuesday.