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Photo illustration by Krieg Barrie

Design flaw?

A fired NASA employee says he was let go because of his belief in intelligent design

Issue: "After the revolution," Feb. 26, 2011

On Christmas Eve, 1968, as a Super Bowl-sized viewing audience watched on television, the crew of moon-orbiting Apollo 8 took turns reading from the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis.

David Coppedge remembers that moment. He also remembers astronaut Buzz Aldrin's quoting of Psalm 8 as the Apollo 11 mission returned in July 1969: "'When I consider the heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the Moon and the stars, which Thou hast ordained; What is man that Thou art mindful of him?'"

But it seems that times have changed. Coppedge, a longtime computer administrator at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), lost his job on Jan. 24, nearly two years after he was demoted for his support of intelligent design.

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Coppedge grew up fascinated by space and planets. But growing up in a Christian home, his faith became conflicted with the teaching of evolution in his high school. He'd have conversations with his father, and from those sprang another lifelong passion: creation and evolution. "It is the key debate of our day," says Coppedge, who in his spare time manages the website Creation-Evolution Headlines.

About 14 years ago, Coppedge, now 59, got a dream job working with computers on the lab's Cassini mission to Saturn. One of the most advanced outer planet missions in NASA's history, the satellite has been sending back spectacular images since orbiting Saturn in 2004, after a nearly seven-year voyage.

Back in California, where Coppedge worked, he would occasionally offer to loan DVDs about intelligent design to co-workers. "I would only approach people I was friendly with, not strangers" he said. "I tried to be sensitive, and if somebody was not interested, I stopped."

This continued once or twice a month for about a decade. Then, in March 2009, Coppedge's manager called him into his office and told him to stop. "He claimed that I was pushing my religion," Coppedge said. "It came out of the blue."

After a heated discussion, Coppedge says he obeyed and stopped handing out DVDs. But a month later, Coppedge was demoted and given a written warning that he had violated the laboratory's ethics policy. Coppedge filed a discrimination suit last April under California's Fair Employment and Housing Act. Then last month JPL fired Coppedge.

Laboratory officials say Coppedge lost his job due to downsizing made necessary by budget cuts, but Casey Luskin with the Discovery Institute, a conservative think tank, doesn't believe that explanation. "They got rid of David Coppedge because he didn't fit their philosophy," Luskin said. "Employees apparently are allowed to attack intelligent design, but you are not allowed to support it."

After the firing, Coppedge's attorney, Bill Becker, said he is considering amending the suit to include claims of wrongful termination and a charge of violating First Amendment rights.

The merit of these suits likely got a boost from a Supreme Court decision on Jan. 19 regarding another lawsuit involving JPL: NASA v. Nelson, a case involving background checks, suggests that Coppedge could sue JPL (a federally funded entity) as a federal agency with First Amendment protections.

"It has become pandemic in this nation's scientific community," said Becker, "to discriminate against people who hold views about the origin of life that are contrary to the 150-year-old theory of evolution." In another case, the California Science Center is being sued for canceling a screening of a film promoting intelligent design. And the University of Kentucky recently paid $100,000 to settle a discrimination lawsuit against an astronomer who was denied a job because of his belief in creation.

Becker hopes a similar victory for Coppedge will vindicate the rights of those who want to advance the public's understanding of intelligent design. Coppedge says he mainly wants his job back: "I'm not ready to retire."

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.


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