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 ]