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Judge confirms earlier ruling, sides with JPL in 'intelligent design' case

11:23 AM PST, January 17, 2013

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A Los Angeles Superior Court judge on Wednesday confirmed an earlier ruling that found Jet Propulsion Laboratory administrators did not discriminate against a longtime staffer when they laid him off in 2011.

David Coppedge — a former lead systems administrator on the Cassini Mission to Saturn who worked at JPL for 15 years — filed a lawsuit in 2009 against the agency claiming he was demoted, and then eventually fired, because of his Christian beliefs and in retaliation for discussing the theory of intelligent design at the NASA facility in La Cañada Flintridge.

Proponents of intelligent design contend that biological systems are so complex that they could not have arisen by a series of random changes, so an “intelligent designer” — not necessarily the God in the Bible — must have had a hand in guiding evolution.

Coppedge had sought $860,000 for lost wages and $500,000 for emotional distress damages.

The final ruling by Superior Court Judge Ernest Hiroshige confirms his tentative ruling issued less than three months ago, which came down against Coppedge on every claim. He also overruled all objections filed by Coppedge’s legal team.

In a statement issued after the ruling, Coppedge’s attorney, William Becker, reiterated the arguments he made in court, saying a handful of “malicious co-workers hated [Coppedge’s] Christian views,” as well as his interest in intelligent design, “which they ignorantly perceived to be a religious concept.”

“[Coppedge] was demoted and fired for simply being a Christian,” Becker said.

The attorneys who represented JPL in the case, James Zapp and Cameron Fox, could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday, nor could a spokesperson for the agency.

[Updated 2:31 p.m.: JPL issued a statement Wednesday afternoon reiterating its position that Coppedge's claims were without merit.

"We are very pleased with the decision reached by the court," JPL said in its statement. "As we’ve stated from the beginning, the allegations raised by Mr. Coppedge were without merit. After weighing the evidence in this case, the court has agreed."]

In arguing their case in court, JPL attorneys dismissed the faith-based overtones of the claims. They argued 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.

Becker — who declined to comment beyond his written statement — contended that by “rubber-stamping” JPL’s proposed judgment, and not issuing a thorough written ruling of his own, it would work in Coppedge’s favor going forward.

“By failing to address the evidence personally, thoughtfully and carefully, [Hiroshige] left the door wide open,” said Becker. “By overruling our objections without giving a reason, the judge has all but handed us a victory on appeal."

-- Daniel Siegal, Times Community News

Follow Daniel Siegal on Google+ and on Twitter: @Daniel_Siegal.