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JPL employee wasn't fired over religious beliefs, lawyer says

David Coppedge was his own worst enemy, says representative for the agency.

March 13, 2012|By Daniel Siegal and Jason Wells daniel.siegal@latimes.com, jason.wells@latimes.com
  • Former JPL worker David Coppedge, left, and William Becker appear in court at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in Los Angeles on Tuesday, March 13, 2012. Coppedge is suing the NASA agency, saying that the agency terminated him because he discussed with fellow colleagues his belief in intelligent design. (Cheryl A. Guerrero/Staff Photographer)
Former JPL worker David Coppedge, left, and William Becker…

In opening arguments on Tuesday, the attorney for a former Jet Propulsion Laboratory employee said his client was unfairly fired for his religious beliefs amid bogus claims from co-workers that he was harassing them about “intelligent design,” the theory that God had a hand in creating the universe.

David Coppedge, a former systems administration lead on NASA's Cassini mission to Saturn, claims he was demoted and eventually fired after he was accused of trying to push his views onto co-workers at the agency in La Cañada Flintridge. But attorneys for JPL said in court Tuesday that Coppedge had a history of complaints against him.

He was one of roughly 200 JPL workers who were laid off amid steep funding cuts and as NASA started winding down the Cassini project.

Representing JPL, James Zapp said in court that Coppedge was his own worst enemy, and saw himself as the victim of a “war against intelligent design,” starting in 2009 when one of Coppedge's co-workers filed a harassment complaint against him for requesting she change the “holiday” potluck to the “Christmas” potluck.

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More than 15 people had complained to Coppedge's supervisors over the years about his customer service, saying he was stubborn and hard to deal with, Zapp added.

Administrators repeatedly told Coppedge the issue was how he was interacting with people, not what he was saying, Zapp said.

“[They] said, ‘We have no problem with people discussing religion or politics in the office, as long as it's not unwelcome or disruptive,'” Zapp said.

But in his lawsuit, Coppedge claims it went far beyond that. His attorney, William Becker, said in court Tuesday that his client was told not to discuss religion or politics at all, or risk losing his job.

“Mr. Coppedge was barred from engaging in the same kinds of activities involving religious and political expression that other employees at JPL were permitted to engage in,” Becker said.

It all started when Coppedge's co-workers started lodging complaints about his lending them DVDs on intelligent design, Becker said.

Coppedge was demoted in 2009, prompting his lawsuit in 2010. When he was terminated in 2011, he claimed it was in retaliation for suing.

Coppedge first filed a lawsuit against Caltech, which operates JPL for NASA, after his supervisor removed him from his team lead position in April 2010.

Coppedge claimed in his suit that at least three JPL workers complained about his political and religious beliefs, not his work.

“From 2003 to 2008, Mr. Coppedge received not one complaint, not one criticism of his work that was documented,” Becker said.

Becker had sought to call on an expert to review the religious merit of the DVD, “Unlocking the Mystery of Life,” but the judge on Monday denied the request, saying he was perfectly capable of determining what is and isn't dogma.

Proving that the DVD had no religious leanings, Becker argued, would show that harassment complaints filed against Coppedge were part of a campaign to push him out.

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