JPL case

Former JPL worker David Coppedge, left, and William Becker appear in court at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in Los Angeles. Closing arguments were submitted this week. (Cheryl A. Guerrero / Staff Photographer / March 13, 2012)

Attorneys argued Monday that it was either religious intolerance or workplace incompetence that drove systems administrator David Coppedge from a post at Jet Propulsion Laboratory last year.

Monday’s arguments capped a five-week trial in Coppedge’s lawsuit against the NASA lab in La Cañada Flintridge, in which he claimed he was removed from his job in 2011 because of his advocacy of the theory of intelligent design of the universe.

“This is a series of retaliation — a series of subtly damaging injuries all starting from David’s reaction” to discriminatory actions taken by supervisors, said William Becker, Coppedge’s attorney.

Becker has argued throughout the case that when Coppedge was told to stop lending DVDs on intelligent design or discussing California's anti-gay marriage referendum, Proposition 8, he was being persecuted for his Christian beliefs.

“They don't have a policy against discussing religion and politics, so they essentially singled him out. He was forbidden from doing something everybody else was allowed to do,” Becker said.

Becker and Coppedge have painted the case as a crucial test of religious expression in the scientific community.

“Throughout the scientific and academic worlds in this country, if you dare insert what somebody perceives to be your evangelical Christian values - if they think you're doing that - heads roll,” Becker said before the trial began.

Concurrently, JPL's lawyers have steadfastly insisted Coppedge's tribulations were self-inflicted, the product of stubbornness and a refusal to listen.

JPL attorney James Zapp said more than 15 people had complained to Coppedge's supervisors over the years about his customer service, saying he was stubborn and hard to deal with.

Administrators repeatedly told Coppedge the issue was how he was interacting with people, not what he was saying, Zapp said.

“[They] said, 'We have no problem with people discussing religion or politics in the office, as long as it's not unwelcome or disruptive,'“ Zapp said.

Cameron Fox, representing JPL, said Monday Coppedge was lucky to have been employed on the Cassini mission to Saturn as long as he was — 14 years — given complaints about his work and his clashes with co-workers.

“Frankly, it wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to determine that somebody with a bad working relationship with every unit head of a project wouldn’t be sticking around during downsizing,” she said.

Budget cuts prompted JPL to shed roughly 200 administrative jobs in 2011 — the year Coppedge was let go.

Becker said the contention that Coppedge was disciplined for stubborn or disruptive conduct was a smoke screen for attempts by supervisors, including Greg Chin, to squash Coppedge’s right to free speech and express his religious views.

“Chin’s religious intolerance is not going to fly from his mouth like a racial slur, your honor,” Becker said. “The degree of contempt he holds is going to be exposed in subtle ways.”

Fox said that the very supervisors Coppedge accuses of discrimination had covered for his poor performance and difficult behavior until they were forced to take action.

“But this only enabled his lack of self-awareness, his stubbornness,” Fox said.

Coppedge is seeking unspecified damages, though an expert witness called on his behalf estimated Coppedge is entitled to about $850,000 in lost and future wages. Coppedge is also seeking unspecified damages for emotional distress.

Attorneys for both sides will also submit written arguments to Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Ernest Hiroshige, who is presiding over the case without a jury. Hiroshige said he would give attorneys six weeks to complete the briefing, and he would rule within 10 days after that.