A recent news item  demonstrates some interesting issues about religious discrimination, showing how it is an especially difficult subject for employers to manage.

The case is in its early stages, so the true facts are not available to the public, but the allegation is that David Coppedge, a highly regarded systems administrator working on NASA’s Cassini mission, was selected for a reduction in force because he is a leading advocate for the theory of intelligent design. 

Intelligent design is an alternative to the theory of Darwinian evolution, and has little or nothing to do with the work of Mr. Coppedge.  However, he is alleging that NASA/JPL considered his advocacy for intelligent design in selecting him for the RIF. 

Based upon the Supreme Court’s recent decision in NASA v Nelson (pdf) (that civilian employees of a contractor could be subjected to governmental background checks because they were equivalent to government employees) , he claims that JPL’s decisions amount to government action in violation of his First Amendment rights.  (JPL is operated by California Institute of Technology for NASA.)

NASA has stated that the RIF was completely unrelated to the intelligent design belief, but was due solely to the reduced manpower needs of the current phase of the Cassini mission.  Coppedge alleges that he was accused of “pushing” intelligent design at work by discussing the subject and handing out DVD’s.  Further, talk opposed to intelligent design was allegedly encouraged, with only pro-intelligent design speech being shut down.

There are a couple of interesting features to this story.  One is whether intelligent design is a religious belief, the advancement of which is protected by Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended. While many sects oppose evolution as contrary to the Biblical story of creation by God, intelligent design is not officially embraced as dogma by those churches. Rather, it is a contemporary attempt to square the notion of a “Creator” with modern scientific theory and evidence that organisms have not remained static over time. 

Second, employers have to face the tension between individuals in the workplace who feel an obligation to proselytize and those who feel that they have a right to be free of religious pressure at work.  Employers can, therefore, have reasonable rules regulating religious advocacy at work. 

Can employers discriminate between messages based upon their content, however?  In this case, talk about evolution may have been permitted, but discussion of intelligent design was allegedly banned.  Evolution is not inherently a religious topic, so is it or is it not within the arena of preferring one religion over another? 

One thing is certain:  U.S. taxpayers will be financing an expensive dispute for NASA.