Exposing PseudoAstronomy

April 25, 2010

In the News: David Coppedge Sues JPL for Religious Discrimination


Introduction

This has been in the news quite a bit lately, even making some normal mainstream news sources. It’s definitely made the rounds of ALL the young-Earth creationist and Intelligent Design sources that I peruse on a near-daily basis.

Since it does somewhat cover the topics that I address on this website, I thought I would weigh in with my own thoughts on the issue.

The Lawsuit – What’s Known

The lawsuit in question is being brought against NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of David Coppedge by attorney William Becker, Jr., of The Becker Law Firm, in California Superior Court in Los Angeles, and besides against JPL in general, Coppedge’s direct supervisor, group supervisor, and Manager of IT Resources are all named.

The suit alleges that Coppedge was faced with religious discrimination, harassment and retaliation, general violations of his free speech, and wrongful demotion.

So far, everything about the case has come out of pro-ID or -YEC sources, Coppedge, or the attorney (and related court filings). JPL has yet to comment publicly, and I sincerely doubt they will since they state their policy is not to comment on pending litigation (and they have also stated that, at least as of the end of last week, they have not yet been served with the lawsuit).

The events in question allegedly came as a result of Coppedge handing out pro-ID materials to co-workers who expressed an interest in them. And everything else came as a result of that.

Regress: Some Background on David Coppedge

My run-ins with Coppedge are purely from his writings … on the Institute for Creation Research’s website. Yep, that’s right: Coppedge is a young-Earth creationist, at least based upon his writings. He has written several articles for the ICR, though I have only addressed two in this blog: “Venus and the Battle of Uniformitarianism (A Creationist Argument)” and “Dating Planetary Surfaces with Craters – Why There Is No “Crisis in Crater Count Dating”.” From his writings, he has a very poor grasp of astronomy, despite the attempt of argument from authority by posting at the bottom of them, “David F. Coppedge works in the Cassini program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (The views expressed are his own.)” I address this more below.

Coppedge runs computers at JPL for the Cassini mission to Saturn. His expertise is in computers, not astronomy. And not evolution.

My Thoughts

First, I would like to point out that the Discovery Institute, the “think tank” behind Intelligent Design, has steadfastly maintained over the years that ID is not religion. I find it somewhat ironic that, for allegedly promoting pro-ID materials, he is suing for religious discrimination.

The DI’s claim that one of NASA’s mission statements is to examine the origins of life and so Coppedge was doing something within that is not valid in the objective sciences, in my opinion, because he was taking the religious route. Coppedge, as far as I can tell, is a young-Earth creationist. He was handing out ID materials. ID is religion (despite the protestations of the DI).

I also find it very interesting – and very telling – that no where in ANY of the Intelligent Design stories about this lawsuit do they mention Coppedge’s YEC leanings. Do a word search on their story’s page about the suit for “creation” and you won’t find it. And the DI has continued to exploit this lawsuit, writing near daily articles about it on their blog, Evolution News & Views.

Now that I have that off my chest, I want to look at what has been alleged by Coppedge. Remember that he was a supervisor, in charge as Lead Team System Administrator of ~200 computers involved in NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn. As a supervisor, though even I doubt he tried to use his role as supervisor, it is stated he distributed pro-ID materials.

This is something that I think, at the very least, should not have been done unless (a) he was specifically asked for them, and (b) he did so while he was not “on the clock.”

I bring up the first condition because there can be a very strong implied coercion – even if unintentional – for people to follow what “The Boss” says. I doubt my father remembers this, but when I was very young and spent one school year in the Cub Scouts, I asked him to bring in a sign-up sheet for whatever fundraiser I was doing at the time. At that time, he ran a research lab with several faculty, post-docs, techs, and graduate students. He refused to do so because he didn’t want people to feel obligated to sign up for something from “the boss’s son” even though he in no way would have tried to use his position.

The second condition is that, like it or not, the First Amendment guarantees as much a freedom of religion as a freedom from religion, and the government cannot in any way advocate for or against religion or use its capital in such an endeavor. If Coppedge used time when he was being paid with government money to spread this material, then I would consider that a reprimandable offense. Granted, if it was a “first time” thing, then if I were his boss I would just bring him into the office and mention there are issues here and he needs to do this on his own time and away from NASA buildings so that it doesn’t give the appearance in any way of a government-sponsored event.

Several of the reports on blogs and pro-ID and -YEC sites have emphasized that Coppedge has not been informed of who complained about him handing out material. They make this seem sinister and under-handed, but to me it makes perfect sense. Say you’re working in an office, and your supervisor does something you think is very bad, but you’re afraid that if you tell him about it he’ll fire you. Instead, you go to his boss and complain about it and ask that your identity be kept confidential in order to avoid reprisals. Even if your supervisor wouldn’t have fired you, it could still unconsciously have affected your job evaluations or future promotions if they knew it was you. Keeping your identity secret is the only way to prevent this, though in a lawsuit you would likely necessarily be called as a witness. In this sense, making a big deal about Coppedge not being “informed of the identities of his alleged accusers or even of the specifics of any of their complaints so that he might have the opportunity to rebut them” seems perfectly reasonable, in my opinion. (source for that particular quote)

My next point is, admittedly, perhaps a little more vindictive and has nothing to do with the merits or lack-there-of of this case. I think that Coppedge has used his position as an employee of NASA and position on the Cassini mission as an argument from authority for way too long and this lends an air of undeserved credibility to what he writes. It’s also a complete non sequitur authority because managing computers says nothing about someone’s knowledge of astronomy which also says nothing about that person’s knowledge of evolution.

Finally, I’d like to end with this repetition: All information so far has been from the plaintiff’s side (Coppedge’s). Almost all news articles available on the subject are from pro-ID or -YEC sources. As with any lawsuit, there are almost always two sides to every story, and I suspect that NASA’s is different. I suspect NASA will likely claim Coppedge used his position to push the materials on others. And/Or I suspect NASA will claim Coppedge has done this in the past, was warned, and after continuing to do so he was finally reprimanded pursuant to the Establishment Clause.

On the other hand, it is entirely possible that Coppedge simply did obtain pro-ID materials that another employee requested and JPL over-reacted and did something that legitimately was unwarranted (though I honestly doubt it but that is my own bias). I think that as this case unfolds we will see that Coppedge is not quite the victim he has been made to seem.

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7 Comments »

  1. “the First Amendment guarantees as much a freedom of religion as a freedom from religion.”
    What does “Freedom from religion” mean and entail?

    Comment by Ben Masters — June 2, 2010 @ 10:02 am | Reply

    • Ben, the argument is that “freedom from religion” means that while person X has the right to their religion, Person Y has the right not to have it influence them in any way.

      Comment by astrostu206265 — June 2, 2010 @ 11:47 am | Reply

    • It means exactly what it says. It means the government must be rigorously neutral in all matters of religion. Not only must it allow individuals to practice either the religion of their choice or no religion at all with absolutely no coercion, it cannot support or oppose any particular religion or all religions in any way.

      That means no tax money can be spent on, for or against ANY religious activity, and that specifically prohibits public schools from advocating religious beliefs such as creationism and intelligent design. It does NOT mean public school students can’t pray privately or form after-school religious clubs as that would violate their right to practice religion. Nor does it prohibit teaching classes ABOUT the religions of the world as long as they’re not actually advocated. Otherwise it wouldn’t even be legal to teach Greek mythology, but it obviously is.

      Now there are people (such as the Discovery Institute) who claim with a straight face that intelligent design is somehow different from creationism, and that the name change isn’t just a cynical attempt to get around the First Amdentment and into science classrooms where it doesn’t belong. But judges aren’t quite that stupid, especially one judge in particular: John E. Jones III of the Middle District of Pennsylvania. He wrote such a good opinion on Katzmiller v. Dover Area School District that the Discovery Institute hasn’t been heard from quite as much since.

      Comment by Phil — May 22, 2013 @ 11:01 pm | Reply

  2. This raises the more intriguing question of what would happen if Coppedge were promoting Biblical geocentrism in the Flight Ops group.

    Comment by W.T. Bridgman — June 19, 2010 @ 7:37 pm | Reply

  3. Hi, in what way is ID “religion”?

    BTW the reason the suit was under “religious discrimination” is because that is what his bosses said- to stop pushing his religion even though ID is not any “religion” and does not meet any definition of “religion”.

    Comment by Joe G — February 8, 2012 @ 9:17 am | Reply

    • Really? It’s the plaintiff (though his attorneys) who has to state the law or Constitutional right under which he’s “praying for relief” (that’s the actual legal term). So if it’s a religious discrimination lawsuit, it’s because the plaintiff said it was — even though ID is supposedly not a religious belief (cough cough).

      The ID people have tried to play both sides of this game for far too long.

      Comment by Phil — May 22, 2013 @ 10:18 pm | Reply

    • As to the question of whether ID is “religion”, you might want to read the opinion of a federal judge on this exact question a few years back in a place called Dover, Pennsylvania. You might have heard of it.

      Comment by Phil — May 22, 2013 @ 10:34 pm | Reply


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