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Former JPL employee says he was fired, lawyer says he was laid off

Jet Propulsion Laboratory attorney James Zapp appears in court at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in Los Angeles on Tuesday, March 13, 2012. Former JPL employee David 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)

Attorneys defending the Jet Propulsion Laboratory against a former worker who claims he was fired because of his belief in intelligent design lost their bid this week to block media access to the trial.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ernest Hiroshige denied their request without explanation as the trial delved deeper into the beliefs of the plaintiff, David Coppedge, and how the space exploration agency based on scientific research can accommodate employees who wear their faith on their sleeve.

Coppedge claims he was fired for his belief in intelligent design — or that God had a hand in guiding the development of the universe — and that his former colleagues unfairly accused him of pushing his agenda at work to get him fired.

Attorneys for JPL dismiss the faith-based overtones of the case. They say Coppedge had a history of work-related complaints against him and that he was laid off for legitimate reasons at a time when the agency was shedding some 200 administrative jobs.


Attorneys for JPL asked Hiroshige to exclude the media during testimony from Coppedge’s former co-workers.

“It’s unfair to put these people through that kind of exposure on these sorts of personal subjects,” James Zapp, lead attorney for JPL, said Tuesday. “They didn’t bring this lawsuit; we’re trying to protect employees who are innocent in this process.”

Coppedge testified this week that questions about the origin of life ran deep in his family long before he worked for JPL. On Wednesday, Coppedge said his father, James Coppedge, was an ordained minister with a master’s degree in chemistry who wrote a book critiquing the theory of evolution.

“My dad explored the possibility of getting a living cell by chance,” said Coppedge. “The research he did into DNA, proteins and how a cell functions shows you not only can’t get a cell by chance, you can’t get a single functional protein by chance.”


In court papers, Coppedge claims co-workers filed unjustified harassment complaints against him after he tried to discuss intelligent design or Proposition 8, California’s ban on gay marriage.

His attorney, William Becker, said supervisors improperly warned Coppedge not to address those subjects and that he 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 is affiliated with the Alliance Defense Fund, an Arizona-based organization whose mission is “to keep the door open for the spread of the Gospel through the legal defense of religious freedom, the sanctity of life, marriage and the family,” according to its website.

The case is being tried before Hiroshige without a jury. It is expected to last for several weeks.