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JPL wins tentative ruling in 'intelligent design' case

Judge finds that worker was not fired because of his religious views.

  • Former JPL worker David Coppedge, left, and William Becker appear in court at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in Los Angeles.
Former JPL worker David Coppedge, left, and William Becker appear in court… (Cheryl A. Guerrero / Staff…)
November 02, 2012|By Daniel Siegal, daniel.siegal@latimes.com

Jet Propulsion Laboratory did not improperly fire a longtime staffer because he discussed his religious beliefs in the workplace, a Los Angeles judge tentatively ruled Thursday.

In a case that drew national attention, David Coppedge, a former lead systems administrator on the Cassini project to Saturn, claimed the NASA rocket lab in La Cañada Flintridge demoted him and then laid him off because of his religious views, including his belief that an intelligent being is responsible for the creation of the universe.

Coppedge claimed his discussions of intelligent design with co-workers led to discipline that improperly curtailed his speech rights and amounted to religious discrimination.

Attorneys for JPL countered that Coppedge was a problem employee for reasons that had nothing to do with his views.

Over the years, they said, Coppedge failed to complete expected tasks and butted heads with supervisors, leading to his 2009 demotion and 2011 dismissal.

Coppedge worked for JPL for 15 years, and was let go in a year that budget cuts prompted the laboratory to eliminate 200 administrative posts.


On Thursday, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ernest Hiroshige, who presided over the trial in March and April, issued a tentative decision stating he would rule in favor of JPL on all aspects of the case.

JPL’s attorneys must now prepare a proposed judgment and statement of decision, to be submitted within 30 days.

“We are pleased with the judge’s tentative decision, but it is premature to make any further statement at this time,” said James Zapp, head of JPL’s legal team.

Coppedge’s attorneys will have 15 days to file objections to the proposed decision.

William Becker, who represents Coppedge, declined comment on the tentative decision. He said that he wants to see the judge’s reasoning.

“This case had to do with David’s whole worldview, the way he was perceived,” Becker said.

Becker said he would wait until the decision is finalized before deciding whether to appeal it.

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