the discovery institute finds its martyr

May 3, 2010

There’s a first time for everything, even things you never thought could happen. But while I’m shocked that I’m about to type these words, a recent lawsuit by a JPL employee and advanced by the Discovery Institute might have managed to make a point with which I have to agree. No, this point has nothing to do with creationism or the sloppy pseudoscience the Institute tries to jam into public schools. From a scientific view, all their efforts are still terribly misguided polemics in the name of an anti-knowledge campaign. But in their defense of a very active and vocal proponent of creationism at JPL who says he was demoted just for annoying his superiors by constantly offering creationist DVDs to his co-workers, they make a very legitimate argument that no one should be demoted solely for his or her religious beliefs. And if this was really the case, I’d have to concur. At the same time, we can’t let the creationist in question off the hook since he’s not completely innocent here…

Here are the facts. David Coppedge, an IT team lead at JPL working on the Cassini mission, sits on the board of a media company which produces creationist DVDs which are just as fact-averse and religiously dogmatic as you would probably expect. According to a very dramatic complaint submitted by his lawyer, who was being advised by the Institute, Coppedge’s boss took away most of his team lead responsibilities due to complaints about his proselytizing even though no one supposedly told Coppedge himself that his efforts were unwanted as far as he could recall. Felling angry, insulted and humiliated, Coppedge decided to sue and his suit got the attention of the Discovery Institute, which has been promoting the story on their blogs and trying to shop it to a friendly media outlet, getting two very brief write-ups they claim are just the start of how huge this story will get right after JPL formally comments on the case. But of course, this isn’t quite the open and shut case you may be lead to think by the Institute’s description, and it raises some concerns on both sides.

Firstly, we all know that discriminating against employees because of their religious beliefs is illegal. You just can’t do that since religious freedom is protected by the Establishment Clause and should you fire a very fiery and devout Christian just for being a Christian, you will be sued and rightfully so. However, we also know that there are roundabout ways to get rid of people employers don’t want around and some of them fall into a gray area where legitimate concerns don’t allow courts to rule on black and white guidelines. So while being a very devout creationist and protected from religious discrimination, Coppedge isn’t allowed to harass those within earshot and use his religion as an excuse to do so. Offering people who aren’t interested anti-science DVDs once in a while is one thing. Doing it so often that it becomes disruptive to the working environment is not. His right to express his beliefs in public may be guaranteed by the law, but so are everyone else’s and when we’re talking about First Amendment rights, we’re really agreeing that everyone’s entitled to have a view and express it without any specific preference for the belief system being advocated. The question in this case is whether Coppedge’s zealotry was being used as a backdoor way to censor him, or whether his boss had a legitimate concern about the IT lead’s disruptive behavior in the workplace.

Secondly, think of your normal working environment. When someone obsessively harps on the same subject, you don’t necessarily voice your complaint to the person because you want him to leave you alone rather than start a debate. Then, when he’s not around, you might vent your frustrations with others who you know feel the same way. And when the boss cracks down on the proselytizer in question after hearing enough griping, the response from the zealot is always a shocked surprise. Nobody told him! Nobody complained! Nobody said a word! People just nodded and went on their merry way! And besides, what he has to say is so important, how could anyone try to muzzle him with this surprise attack?! In other words, the zealots are the very last people to pick up on their zealotry, or take “thanks but no thanks” for an answer. It’s very probable that Coppedge simply ignored the polite attempts to escape his proseletyzing and is honestly at a loss as to why anyone would have a complaint about his efforts to spread the word of God at JPL. But that said, there should have been a whole lot of paperwork involved, with documented warnings, write-ups and a plan outlining the consequences of his insistence on disturbing the working environment. It seems that none of this was done and a big organization like JPL should’ve followed the basic procedures for appropriately handling disciplinary problems.

Finally, we have to point out that the Discovery Institute has been on the hunt for a martyr to their case for quite a while and are taking advantage of Coppedge’s situation and JPL’s apparent lack of proper paperwork in the matter. This is why the official complaint constantly repeats how humiliated, offended and disrespected David felt about his demotion while no one at the entire organization ever took issue with anything he did. Without a serious set of documents from JPL in response to the suit, you can bet that he’ll be trumpeted as a victim of a Darwinist mob which found his views too dangerous to allow in their establishments. And in the true Institute style, the very suggestion that Coppedge was just an annoying busybody who kept trying to get scientists who worked with him to watch religious DVDs made by a company he helps direct, will be treated like an insult to the sacrificial lamb of the Institute’s cause of dismantling evolution education in schools and colleges. Even if the managers at JPL overstepped their bounds, violated Coppedge’s right to free speech and the slighted IT lead deserves reinstaintment and a public apology, you can expect the Institute to get as much mileage out of this case as they possibly can. As a popular saying goes, don’t pity the martyr, he likes his job.

[ as per tradition, illustration by Controversy Wear, story tip by the NCSE ]

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  • Pierce R. Butler

    At the least, this adds up to one more data point supporting the Salem Hypothesis – not to mention whatever name might be given to the stereotype of socially clueless engineers.

  • Greg Fish

    Actually, I think it’s more proof that undergraduate degrees lack the scientific lean the subsequent level programs carry. I can see how someone with an undergrad in the computer science field could conceive of a deity acting as programmer of sorts, but when you’re talking about research projects with PhDs, it’s all about borrowing from biology and using evolutionary algorithms to solve complex problems.

    Though to be fair, I don’t know what degree Coppedge has and whether he took any independent study and research courses in computer science. Working in IT doesn’t always require a comp sci degree.

  • DamianD

    I’m also going to have to begrudgingly agree that JPL handled this horribly and that his right to free speech was likely infringed upon. And that’s unfortunate, as everyone does have a right to express their beliefs, but this does underscore another issue…

    People who believe in God are taught to spread their beliefs to those who don’t. It’s part of their mandate. So they are far more likely to go around and do things like Coppedge was doing at JPL. In my experience (which is certainly limited by virtue of me only being 31 years old) those who do not believe in God spend quite a bit less time in public spreading their beliefs. So those of us who don’t believe do get subjected to the religious perspective far more often than those of a religious persuasion are subjected to the non-religious perspective. And that’s simply because not believing in God does not manifest itself in our every day conversations, actions or belongings as often.

    People who are religious might say a quick prayer when something bad happens or might proclaim “Thank God!” when relieved about something. They are more likely to say “God bless you” when someone sneezes instead of something non-religious. They wear crucifixes or necklaces with saints on them, might have religiously themed clothing or trinkets at their desks. Their religion is part of their lives and it shows. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but when you don’t believe there are far less ways to present that perspective in a way that is terribly noticeable.

    And that’s before factoring in the fear some people might have at openly professing a lack of belief by putting a Darwin bumper sticker on their car or doing something similar. I’ve been condemned to hell quite a few times this year simply because I’m not afraid to admit that I don’t believe in God when the issue comes up in conversation. And that’s not to say that all religious people are aggressive and intolerant like that, but there are enough of them out there that people are hesitant to publicly state that they do not believe in God, even if that does happen to be the case.

    So I can see how dealing with an individual like this at work could be quite annoying and might spur employees on to complain… even aggressively complain. And I can see how a manager or supervisor might cave to quickly mounting pressure and make a poor choice like this. That doesn’t excuse it by any means… but I can understand how it may have happened.

  • mandas

    Sorry, have to disagree here.

    Everyone had a right to HOLD a belief, but they do not have a right to express it wherever and whenever they feel like it.

    Further, the JPL is a scientific establishment, and to have someone in a leadership position openly advocating a non-science viewpoint is unacceptable. This guy was not sacked, according to the complaint “Coppedge’s boss took away most of his team lead responsibilities due to complaints about his proselytizing”.

    I cannot see how anyone could possibly turn this into a restriction on the freedom of religion thing. The guy demonstrated behaviour which was clearly counter to the aims of the organisation for which he worked. He should not be in a leadership role, where he can influence others.

  • RaggMopp

    @Pierce R Butler: You know a lot of engineers do you Pierce? If you do, perhaps you’ve noticed that some are short, some are tall; some are wide, some are narrow ; some are smart, some are dumb; some are arrogant assholes, some are gifted politicians. Just like regular human beings. One thing they don’t seem to share with a broad cross-section of their fellow human beings is that they all are somewhat educated.

    Not to suggest that their exposure to science immunizes them to Creationist bat-shit. That seems to be a function of prior conditioning or late visceral needs. My own grim experience with an evangelical Christian radical right (reactionary) fundamentalist lunatic engineer, was that he wasted little of his day on such things as doing what he was hired to do, his own agenda was too important to be derailed with work. I know why we didn’t make an issue of it; he went to the chief engineer’s church. We just backed and filled for crazy George. I mean, after all, we were government employees, why would we risk self destruction to save Uncle Sam $60,000 a year. If it had been my own $60,000 I’d probably have considered a God Father alternative. At the very least, I would have read the manual as regards adverse actions, including termination. It’s really not that hard to fire government employee, for cause. But you do have to have your ducks in a row, and guts enough to hang when the big guys are going like, “Do you really need to do this? Are you crazy? Why don’t you come up with an alternative; you could assign him to a meaningless task that would make him angry enough to quit.” it’s pretty hard to resist if you have ambitions to a higher grade