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Ex NASA employee sues over religious row

A former senior NASA expert was sacked after being unfairly accused of "harassing co-workers with (his) religion," his lawyer told the start of an unfair dismissal trial on Tuesday.

world Updated: Mar 14, 2012 08:42 IST

A former senior NASA expert was sacked after being unfairly accused of "harassing co-workers with (his) religion," his lawyer told the start of an unfair dismissal trial on Tuesday.

Computer administrator David Coppedge was fired from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) last year after expressing support for intelligent design to fellow employees, said his attorney lawyer William Becker.

Coppedge filed a religious discrimination lawsuit in April 2010, and claims he was dismissed nine months later in retaliation for taking the legal action -- but JPL said he was laid off as part of a staff reduction.

In court in Los Angeles, Coppedge's lawyer claimed JPL demoted him for "pushing religion" by loaning co-workers DVDs about intelligence design, which challenges evolutionary theory that life is based on random chance.

"It's come to my attention you've been harassing co-workers with your religion," Becker quotes Coppedge's former project supervisor Gregory Chin as saying.

Coppedge, who had joined JPL in 1996, was an information technology specialist and system administrator -- and team leader -- on the project's Cassini mission to Saturn.

He lost his team leader role in 2009, and left the company last year after 15 years.

In a sworn declaration, he denied he was aggressive in voicing views about religion, including by sending emails criticizing the change in name of the 2003 Cassini Christmas party to a "holiday party."

"I was not pushy, scolding or demanding in these emails," he said. "In fact, my purpose was to convince them to not be so politically correct. It wouldn't have made any sense for me to have been pushy," he said.

JPL lawyers claim that Coppedge forced co-workers to hear his opinions about intelligent design and California's Proposition 8, a 2008 referendum initiative which banned gay marriage in the western US state.

But they say the DVDs had nothing to do with his demotion and that two JPL managers who were Christian -- like Coppedge -- actually bought DVDs about intelligent design from him.

In a statement issued as the trial opened, JPL dismissed the charges, saying: "The suit is completely without merit and we intend to vigorously fight the allegations raised by Mr Coppedge."

JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology, which operates under a contract with NASA.