NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is preparing to defend itsef against a lawsuit by a former employee who claims he was demoted and then fired for promoting his views on intelligent design.

NASA's explanation is that computer specialist David Coppedge lost his status as "team lead" after his co-workers complained of harassment and was let go when the project he was working on ended. According to Caltech, Coppedge was just one of 246 JPL employees terminated last year due to budget cuts.

Coppedge, however, says "he was discriminated against because he engaged his co-workers in conversations about intelligent design and handed out DVDs on the idea while at work."

"The question is whether the plaintiff was fired simply because he was wasting people's time and bothering them in ways that would have led him to being fired regardless of whether it was about religion," professor of First Amendment law Eugene Volokh told the Associated Press, "or whether he was treated worse based on the religiosity of his beliefs."

According to the Associated Press, Coppedge "is active in the intelligent design sphere and runs a website that interprets scientific discoveries through the lens of intelligent design. His father authored an anti-evolution book and founded a Christian outreach group. He is also a board member for Illustra Media, a company that produces video documentaries examining the scientific evidence for intelligent design. The company produces the videos that Coppedge was handing out to co-workers."

Despite this background, his lawsuit asserts that he was not attempting to proselytize, but that his attempts to share his beliefs -- combined with his support for California's anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 and his request that the lab's annual holiday party be relabeled a "Christmas party" -- gave him a reputation for being a conservative Christian, and that led to his demotion.

A representative of the pro-intelligent design Discovery Institute, which is supporting Coppedge's case, described his treatment as "part of a pattern. There is basically a war on anyone who dissents from Darwin and we've seen that for several years."

On the other side of the debate, a director of the National Center for Science Education insisted that the argument isn't really about intelligent design and that "it would be unfortunate if the court took what seems to be a fairly straightforward employment law case and allowed it to become this tangled mess of trying to adjudicate scientific matters."

Coppedge originally brought suit in April 2010, after his demotion, alleging religious discrimination and harassment, and amended it after he lost his job to include wrongful termination. He is seeking damages and a statement that his rights were violated. The trial is set to begin Monday in Los Angeles Superior Court.

Photo from NASA via Wikimedia Commons