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In the David Coppedge Trial, Intelligent Design Is Where the Threads All Intersect

David Coppedge at last took the stand today, for under an hour before the day's business concluded. The balance of the day had been consumed with unsuccessful attempts by his former employer, NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, to bar the media from covering future testimony by Coppedge's ex-colleagues bearing on the sources of their religious and political animus.

In his testimony, Coppedge described his religious background as the son of a Christian pastor whose writing encompassed creationism and intelligent design. Coppedge made a useful distinction between the two.

Creationism begins with religious assumptions while ID makes no such assumptions, looking exclusively at the evidence of design in nature. It does not reach religious conclusions either.

Yet JPL's legal team has maintained steadfastly that intelligent design has nothing to do with what happened to Coppedge at JPL. Their legal team objected to the testimony on ID but was overruled. As we go into the heart of Coppedge's testimony in the next couple of days, another important and relevant distinction needs to be made.

In this small and cluttered Superior Court room in Los Angeles, the Coppedge affair is unfolding on two different planes. On the legal plane it's an employment discrimination case. On the cultural plane, it's a story about the extent to which the culture of Big Science forbids people in the world of science from freely debating the merits of certain ideas, creating an illusion of "consensus."

Intelligent design is where the planes intersect. JPL in the person of Coppedge's superior Greg Chin instructed Coppedge that he was forbidden from discussing ID with his colleagues. No one had complained to Coppedge himself that he should stop talking about the subject with them -- a request that, had it been made, he would have respected and by which he would have abided.

Instead, one colleague took it on herself to interpret polite offers of information on ID as "harassment," and then to inform on Coppedge to superiors. This Orwellian equation, that makes presenting the pro-ID view tantamount to harassment, became the premise of the investigation that followed, resulting in Coppedge's demotion and finally termination.

Here's the key to the whole affair. Never did JPL forbid expressions of contempt for ID. If you were anti-ID, you could advertise and advocate that view to your heart's content. JPL only forbade expressions of support for ID. Coppedge was under a gag order on the topic, a constraint that no ID critic in the lab faced.

Quite the contrary. In a variety of forums JPL employees hooted and jeered at ID while pumping for Darwin -- a JPL-sponsored online discussion group, officially sponsored speaking events, with obnoxious stickers on their office doors, informal office conversations that would be impossible to catalogue and number -- all with no negative repercussions. Only when Coppedge spoke up for the science of ID was he told to stand down or face employment consequences.

Greg Chin wrote in an email to colleagues describing how he warned Coppedge "not to discuss this issue any further" and that "this topic is not for further discussion."

He should not attempt to advocate his beliefs or question the beliefs of others. [Coppedge] responded that he felt that he was being singled out ...and requested that I tell him the names of his "accusers." I refused ... but told him that he needs to be careful and that this type of discussion is appropriate in certain setting (i.e., a JPL Bible Study group or where an individuals requests an opinion).

I informed him that Intelligent Design (ID) is a personal belief that should be kept to himself unless invited by other to discuss. Dave also wanted to know why he was being singled out.

I bet he did. Coppedge's being "singled out" for special treatment because he was pro-ID is exactly where all the threads in this story come together. Imagine this thought experiment, an alternative universe where JPL is dominated by conservative Christians:

JPL allows people to talk about their private Christian religious beliefs, post political cartoons bashing Muslims, put "Muslims=killers" stickers on their doors. No one complains.

The lone Muslim working at JPL offers to loan colleagues some videos about Islam. Some people who hate Islam complain that they are offended, and he is demoted because of his "harassing" behavior. After all, speaking up for Islam is a form of harassment.

JPL's response is that punishing the lone Muslim is acceptable because no one ever complained about the religious views expressed by other people. They only complained about the Muslim, proving that the Muslim was harassing people.

Get the point? JPL allows employees to informally share their views on a variety of subjects and reflecting scientific views of all kinds. In 2009 it made an exception and imposed limits on intelligent-design advocate David Coppedge alone, whose ID views were erroneously categorized as "religion" by ignorant colleagues. His views were not only dismissed but silenced.

Judge Ernest Hiroshige must evaluate whether JPL engaged in a selective policy driven by animus to David's perceived religious beliefs. On that question the ultimate verdict will -- or should -- turn.