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Legal Smackdown: NASA, Religion and Intelligent Design

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Nick Ut / AP

David Coppedge, left, is shown outside Los Angeles Superior Court with his attorney, William Becker on March 7, 2012.

It's been a long time since I graduated law school and was admitted to the bar, and I've surely forgotten more than I remember. But here's one bit of legal street-smarts I've retained: if you're a plaintiff filing a trial brief, you may not want to write it as if it were a screenplay — and then admit that you're making stuff up. That's just one of the curious wrinkles in the case of David Coppedge, the plaintiff in an ongoing courtroom smackdown that also involves NASA, religious freedom, workplace decorum and the origins of life.

Coppedge is — or was — a computer analyst and team leader at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, working on the Cassini Saturn project. He is also a believer in intelligent design, the idea that life is too complex to have emerged and advanced without the hand of a creator behind it. Coppedge both runs a "creative-evolution" website and serves on the board of a company that produces intelligent design videos. Every bit of this is Constitutionally protected and none of it need have interfered with his work on the Cassini project — even if his beliefs do make something of an awkward fit with a mission that is intended, in part, to look for the chemical and evolutionary origins of life, with no role for anything other than the strictly empirical. Still, in 2009 Coppedge was demoted and in 2011 he was fired; both moves, he claims, were a result of religious discrimination.

Not so, says JPL. Coppedge, they argue, was harassing his co-workers by pushing his intelligent design video on them and engaging in unwelcome arguments about the origins of life. He is also alleged to have made coworkers uncomfortable with his overbearing conversations about his support for Proposition 8 — California's anti-same sex marriage amendment — and his belief that the JPL holiday party ought to be renamed a Christmas party. He was, according to his former superiors, reprimanded and told to confine such discussions to the lunch hour or other free time. Coppedge, according to those same superiors, responded by alleging a "hostile work environment."

Surprise: the whole mess has wound up in court, with Coppedge suing for compensatory and punitive damages as well as emotional distress and JPL insisting that it didn't give a fig about Coppedge's religious beliefs, but was very concerned with — and constitutionally entitled to control — his behavior in the workplace. Opening arguments began this week and — another surprise! — many of the usual ideological suspects are weighing in, including the Discovery Institute, on the pro-intelligent design side, and the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) in the opposite camp.

A reading of the trial briefs and other filings, available on the NCSE website, make a strong argument for JPL as the more temperate party, and Coppedge as a provocateur and — not to put too fine a point on it — a pain. JPL's defense is manifold: Coppedge, it says, had long been a subject of complaints by coworkers, and Greg Chin, his supervisor, had received reports "from at least fifteen project members about Coppedge, focusing on his uncooperative attitude and poor listening and interpersonal skills, which contributed to issues about his technical performance."

Three employees named in the brief variously complained that Coppedge had given them his DVD on intelligent design and had kept a list of employees "whom he appeared to be targeting;" that he had harassed a colleague when he demanded that she change the name of the holiday party; and that he had initiated a discussion about Proposition 8, ultimately "insulting [a colleague] by saying that he must not like children because he disagreed with Coppedge's view on the initiative." Coppedge was given a verbal warning and a written warning and later, when the Cassini project moved into what is known as the extended-mission phase, dismissed — along with about of a third of the rest of the now-downsized team.

The brief's supporting evidence does a fair job of backing up its claims that Coppedge was prickly at best and confrontational at worst. Moreover, it is true that unmanned NASA spacecraft — including the celebrated Voyager probes to the outer solar system, the Galileo probe to Jupiter and the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers — often exceed their originally anticipated lifespans and while the missions continue for additional months or years, they do so with less funding for staff and support. Most critically, JPL argues that it was at no point seeking to control the content of Coppedge's religious or political communications with his colleagues, but rather his conduct in expressing those views. That, of course, is the critical Constitutional distinction that allows employers to maintain decorum without trampling the First Amendment.

As for Coppedge's case? Well, begin with the fact that despite his presumably sound representation by counsel, his brief opens with a quote from Chin that reads, "David, stop pushing your religion on people!" and even appends a date on which the statement was made. The exclamation point may be interpretive, but if the language is accurate, Chin appears to have been with his rights as a supervisor. "Pushing" religion on colleagues is a very different thing from merely discussing it — at an appropriate time and place and in an appropriate manner — and that goes to the heart of the conduct versus content distinction.

The brief similarly quotes from a human resources interview in which Chin says he was "tired of all the complaints regarding David harassing people with his religious viewpoint during business hours" and that "David tried to get me to believe in his religion." It further quotes co-workers voicing similar sentiments, but vaguely dismisses all of this as a "tantrum" on Chin's part or simply "intolerance."

Far more bizarre is Coppedge's inclusion of a three-page "screenplay" dramatizing his interactions with one of the complaining coworkers, including such dialogue as "I'm so uncomfortable with David approaching me about watching an intelligent design DVD and talking about my stance on Proposition 8." The coworker then, in the "screenplay" version of the incident, sobs.

It is not a legal leap to suggest that none of this helps Coppedge's case. Nor does his footnote to the scene, which concedes "Some liberties have been taken with the dialogue and action as artistic license." Legal briefs, of course, are not typically the place for artistic anything — especially license.

Groups like the intelligent design community are not always free to pick their poster children, and it's unfortunate for them that Coppedge is one of theirs. It's true enough that employers and colleagues in a science-based workplace might be uncomfortable with the idea of a coworker who believes in intelligent design. But neither the Constitution nor employee-protection laws can regulate feelings — no more than they can or should regulate belief systems. They can, however, circumscribe behavior on both sides of that faith-divide. From the filings at least, JPL appears to have stayed well within those boundaries. Coppedge appears to have jumped the rails entirely.