After a fiery trial
Intelligent design proponent David Coppedge reflects on his wrongful termination lawsuit and walking through the valleys of life
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David Coppedge was working his job as a system administrator at the prestigious Jet Propulsion Laboratory one day when a shadow overcast his cubicle. It was his deputy section manager, who stood over him with a grave face and said, “I need you to stop what you’re doing and come with me.”
Then, in a private office, the manager told him he was being laid off, effective immediately. Coppedge was stunned. But there was little he could do except silently gather his personal belongings—framed pictures of nature, work memorabilia, notebooks—and follow an escort off the premises. In his mind, he stuttered, “This can’t be real. Is this really happening?”
That was Jan. 24, 2011—almost two years after the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a NASA-contracted, federally funded research and development center in Southern California, demoted Coppedge from his “team lead” position of nine years. The demotion came after a colleague complained Coppedge was “harassing” her with his religious viewpoints at work.
Here’s what happened: Coppedge had offered his co-worker a DVD by Illustra Media (he’s a board member there) called Unlocking the Mystery of Life. The documentary uses biological arguments to poke holes in evolutionary theory: It supports intelligent design but doesn’t mention religion or God. That co-worker later testified in court she had fast-forwarded through the film instead of watching it, yet she somehow still became alarmed by its “religious” content.
Her alarm was enough to spark an investigation that revealed Coppedge had also offended her and a second co-worker by handing them information fliers supporting California’s Proposition 8, a measure that temporarily banned same-sex marriage in the state. In April 2009, JPL sent Coppedge a written warning and demoted him. He filed a wrongful demotion case against JPL. Then eight months after his lawsuit, JPL abruptly terminated his employment.
That day, Coppedge called his lawyer before leaving the JPL parking lot. They discussed what to do next in court, and then Coppedge drove the 28 miles back home in a daze, wondering what was next in life. He remembers praying: “Lord, You’re in control. I don’t know what’s happening, but this is for Your purpose, so help me do my best and learn from it.”
For the next two years, Coppedge learned suffering: He lost his lawsuit against JPL after spending about $70,000 on legal fees and shouldering a financial loss of more than $800,000 in lost salary and benefits. Six days before the trial concluded, he discovered he had cancer. Meanwhile, his mother was dying. It was a season of stumbling through “deep valleys,” Coppedge says. But he also calls it a “story of God’s mercy and grace.”
ON MARCH 21, COPPEDGE TURNED 65. A fit-looking, self-possessed man with a neat salt-and-pepper beard, he’s also a stargazing, note-taking nerd whose blue eyes light up over his favorite topics: God, nature, science, music (he plays the French horn and trumpet and composes electronic music, mostly orchestral). In 2013, four months after surgery to remove cancerous tumors, Coppedge trekked across the Grand Canyon with a 45-pound backpack and a 12-inch abdominal scar, then dived 55 feet into a deep pool. Last year, he surpassed his goal of walking 1,000 miles in 12 months. With every step, he marveled at the miraculous human body.
Coppedge never married, but he’s close to his sister Judy (his oldest sister, Jeanne, died of cancer in 2000), and he keeps himself busy with people. Once, immediately after being discharged from the hospital after a near-fatal bee sting, he showed up at the fire station to thank the paramedics who rescued him. And then, not satisfied with verbal thank-you’s and teary bear hugs, he returned with Life Savers candy, chips, and a giant sheet cake decorated with red icing: “To the Life Savers of Station 150.” Despite losing the case against JPL, he scrounged up more than $50,000 from his retirement savings for his attorney out of gratitude for his unpaid work (but that money ended up going to court costs).
Ever since Sputnik launched in 1957 and astronaut Buzz Aldrin quoted Psalm 8 after the Apollo 11 mission, Coppedge was fascinated with space. His father, James, a nature-loving youth minister and an advocate of intelligent design, instilled in him a great awe for creation and science. His biology teacher, a staunch evolutionist, demonstrated how pervasively the belief (or disbelief) in a Creator shapes worldviews, something that later inspired Coppedge to call Darwin the “Bearded Buddha,” since “people offer sacrifices by taking their brain out and offering it at his feet.”
Like his father, Coppedge loves extolling the wonders of creation. He founded Creation Safaris in 1984 after realizing his church’s social events were all urban activities such as bowling and concerts. Since then, he’s been leading outdoor nature trips to gaze at fossils, galaxies, sunsets, flowers, and birds in mountains, rivers, and canyons, always giving full credit to the Creator.
The idea for his second project resulted from a work lecture discussing how one of Jupiter’s moons produces too much heat for an apparently multibillion-year-old satellite. Coppedge wrote about the topic on his Creation Safaris website, attracting enough readers to spawn a separate website called “Creation-Evolution Headlines,” where he spends hours each day penning commentaries on the latest scientific news.
WHEN JPL HIRED COPPEDGE IN 1996 as a computer system administrator to help with the Cassini mission to Saturn (described by NASA as “the most ambitious effort in planetary space exploration ever mounted”), he was thrilled to land his dream job: Here he was, at the heart of cutting-edge science—probing the heavens, discovering the great unknown, making history. As team lead, he constantly tried to excite his team members with the awareness they were part of something extraordinary.
He also occasionally offered DVDs about intelligent design to co-workers whom he knew. His goal wasn’t to proselytize, he says, but to stir conversations, because “if the Darwinian picture is flawed, people ought to know the facts.” He had one co-worker who would talk frequently about his interest in photography—so why not share his own interest in the origin of life? If anyone expressed disinterest, he says, he immediately backed down. So Coppedge was flabbergasted when his supervisor told him “a number of people” had complained that he was “pushing religion” during work hours. His demotion came a month later.
Coppedge called the Alliance Defense Fund (now known as Alliance Defending Freedom) for help. ADF-affiliate attorney Bill Becker, now president of nonprofit public policy firm Freedom X, volunteered to take the case pro bono. He and Coppedge filed suit in April 2010. Since it’s illegal for employers to retaliate, Coppedge thought his job was safe while litigation pended. JPL found another way to boot him off: They said he was let go for performance reasons as part of a larger cutback of staff. (Coppedge’s performance reviews abruptly began tanking soon after the DVD incident.)
Because Becker had no staff, Coppedge acted as his paralegal, analyzing hundreds of documents for evidence. Altogether, Becker estimates they spent about 2,500 hours over three years working on the case.
Meanwhile, Coppedge was suffering from chronic headaches that increased in pain and frequency. During the intense five-week trial, the headaches became so unbearable Coppedge sometimes had to lie down on courtroom benches. After meals, his face flushed beet-red and he had recurring diarrhea and abdominal pain, which he blamed on emotional stress and food poisoning.
Then one day, Coppedge’s endocrinologist called him in and told him he had neuroendocrine cancer. A large tumor was pressing on his small intestine, and tumors “too numerous to count” were spreading in his liver. Coppedge took the doctor’s news stoically, but once alone at home, he bawled like a baby. Six days later, on Jan. 16, 2013, the judge ruled against him on all counts without explanation. JPL then threatened to make him pay its court costs of $51,000.
For days, devastation came in waves. Tears surged out without warning. Coppedge couldn’t shake what seemed like the devil perched on his shoulder, whispering, “Dave, you’re a sinner. This is why this is happening to you.” Discouraged, he cried, “God, please show me a sign that this is not punishment for something I did.”
The next morning, he walked into church for the Sunday service just in time to hear the congregation sing “How Firm a Foundation.” The hymn’s lyrics—“When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie / My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply”—overwhelmed him to tears, this time from relief and comfort. Then the pastor preached on suffering through life’s trials and quoted Psalm 23, saying, “The fact that you walk through the valley of the shadow of death does not necessarily mean you will leave it, just that He will be with you.” Coppedge, feeling his prayer had been answered, faced surgery the following day with confidence and peace.
Today, Coppedge’s cancer is in remission and his legal battle with his former employer is over (he did not have to pay JPL’s legal fees). He now makes one-fourth of the income he earned at JPL, but he’s still doing what he loves: leading nature groups, combing through hundreds of scientific articles for his website, serving as a board member and researcher for creation-related organizations, taking nature photography, and debating foul-mouthed atheists on Twitter.
At least one thing is helping him face the future, whatever it may hold: prayer. Coppedge says the last three years have fortified his prayers with more intentional thanksgiving, which he calls a “terrific healer and sustainer.” His prayer list has also lengthened with the names of other people who are suffering, particularly those with cancer: “That was one of the good things reinforced to me during my trials: the power of prayer. … My prayer life is deeper and richer than it’s ever been.”
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