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Judge tentatively sides with JPL in wrongful-termination suit

November 2, 2012 |  1:52 pm

David Coppedge outside Los Angeles Superior Court with his attorney, William Becker in March. Credit: Nick Ut / Associated Press

A Los Angeles County judge has tentatively sided with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in a high-profile lawsuit filed by a computer specialist who said he lost his job because he promoted the theory of intelligent design at work.

Superior Court Judge Ernest M. Hiroshige said this week he was inclined to agree with JPL attorneys, who argued that David Coppedge was laid off in 2011 because his skill set was outdated and his attitude obstinate. Hiroshige also ordered defense attorneys to draw up a proposed judgment within 30 days of his ruling.

Coppedge attorney William Becker declined to comment before a final decision is made.

Coppedge's lengthy trial this spring was closely followed by intelligent-design adherents, who generally believe that life is too complex to have stemmed from evolution alone and distinguish themselves from creationists by not tying their beliefs specifically to the Bible.

A computer specialist who worked on networks for Cassini, the first spacecraft to orbit Saturn and its moons, Coppedge also maintained a website dedicated to intelligent design and sat on the board of Illustra Media, which produces DVDs promoting the theory.

He tried to get his coworkers to watch at least two of them: "Unlocking the Mystery of Life" and "The Privileged Planet." In 2009, after a coworker balked, a supervisor told Coppedge to "stop pushing your religion," he claimed.

"Imagine if employees were told, stop pushing your gay agenda or stop pushing your feminist agenda, your civil rights agenda," Becker said during closing arguments.

At JPL, which Caltech manages for NASA, a human resources investigation turned up other instances in which colleagues said Coppedge's zeal for hot-button topics made them uneasy. He once asked that the holiday potluck be renamed the Christmas potluck. And he purportedly sparred with a colleague over their divergent views on Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in California.

Coppedge was stripped of his leadership title and responsibilities, though his salary didn't change. He filed suit in 2010 and was laid off the next year as part of massive cutbacks. Defense attorneys argued in court papers that Coppedge lost his job because he ignored suggestions to update his computer skills and developed a reputation for being "unwilling to listen and always having to do things his way."

"What happened to David Coppedge -- really what David Coppedge did to himself -- had nothing to do with intelligent design or religion but with his own stubbornness," defense attorney Cameron Fox said during closing arguments.


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Photo: David Coppedge outside Los Angeles Superior Court with his attorney, William Becker, in March. Credit: Nick Ut / Associated Press