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NASA sued by design

Posted by Don McLenaghen on March 30, 2012

NASA is facing a lawsuit by David Coppedge over alleged discrimination against “Intelligent” Design (ID) proponent. Coppedge claims religious discrimination and wrongful dismissal when he was laid off during recent NASA budget cuts. This decease he is a proponent of

First the details of the case:

David Coppedge lost his status as “team lead” after his co-workers complained of harassment and he was let go when the project he was working on ended. He was just one of 246 JPL employees terminated last year due to budget cuts

Coppedge is active in the intelligent design community and runs a website that interprets scientific discoveries through the lens of intelligent design. He admits to handing out to co-workers, video documentaries examining the scientific evidence for intelligent design produced by Illustra Media, where he is a board member.

Coppedge lawsuit asserts that he was not attempting to proselytize, but that his attempts were to share his beliefs. To support his claim of suffering discrimination, he stated that when he expressed support for the anti-gay Proposition 8 and requested the staff holiday party be “re-labeled” Christmas party; that he was deemed a Christian conservative.

Coppedge originally brought suit in April 2010, after his demotion, alleging religious discrimination and harassment, and amended it after he lost his job to include wrongful termination. He is seeking damages and a statement that his rights were violated.

The Discovery Institute which supports Coppedge described his treatment as “part of a pattern. There is basically a war on anyone who dissents from Darwin and we’ve seen that for several years.”

The National Center for Science Education and NASA expressed that they hope this is adjudicated as an employment action and not used as a back-door way of arguing scientific facts…like evolution!

Now there are three aspects to this I think relevant.

First, does the fact he believed in ID give NASA cause to fire him?

Yes and no…but mostly no. I have discussed in the past that one’s personal beliefs should only concern your employer under X specific conditions,

1)   They interfere with your ability to do your work. For example, if Coppedge did not believe in the heliocentric solar system (or would that he called it the terra system?) it would imply that you thought NASA was involved in some huge conspiracy to trick the people into thinking the Sun was the centre of the system. Simply put you could not be trusted to do your job competently.

2)   They bring direct disrepute upon your employer. So, if Coppedge went on a speaking tour as a NASA scientist to advocate his point of view. It is a view that NASA does not support and because you were using its name to create legitimacy for that view without expressed permission from NASA; thus they have a right to interfere and if necessary terminate.

Second, if I share my beliefs/hobbies/interest with my fellow co-workers, does this give NASA (or any employer) cause to fire me?

Maybe, it is not WHAT he was trying to share that is important, but how. That is, if you are creating a negative workplace environment because of the WAY you express those thoughts.

If I am constantly bringing up the subject in spite of the protest of my co-workers, then I have begun to harass them. If I get agitated and ‘aggressive’ in my ‘expression’ of my thoughts, this may make one’s co-workers uncomfortable, again it becomes harassment.

It's not the request, but how insistent it could have been

Coppedge mentioned that he did on several occasions attempt to ‘enlighten’ his co-workers about ID (and one will assume the metaphysics behind it…i.e. A God), the fact he wished to ‘resurrect’ the Christian ‘title’ for the holiday party, and the conviction with which he seemed to hold his beliefs; it seems that what he WAS doing was proselytizing. This can, and obviously did, create a negative work environment and NASA was in its rights to restore a positive environment by first demoting Coppedge and then including him in the lay-off list.

Lastly, IS this a workplace action at all or another attempt by those in the ID community to use the courts to promote their beliefs on a science community that has dismissed it?

The involvement of the Discovery Institute makes me worry about this issue. IF Coppedge wins his lawsuit, it may be interpreted that people should be free to express their ID beliefs anywhere; that to deny it is discrimination. It would seem the end goal may be to elevate the expression and promotion of ID to a legal right.

Now I confess I am unsure how to distinguish ID from freedom of belief. Ironically, those who propose ID insist that it is not theology but science (although that has been debunked in the Dover case). So, if it is theology, then oddly he may have a case for discrimination if he was not harassing his co-workers AND was fired largely for his ID beliefs.

The evidence I have seen exonerated NASA by my accounting, but there is still the worry that the Discovery Institute lawyers may construe this as a rights issue and the US courts may be sympathetic (assuming the judge believes in the “war on religion” propaganda à la Fox News types).

Let’s keep our eyes open on this one.

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