HR Hero Line

Space: the final frontier

by Mark I. Schickman

There have been many lawsuits limiting the introduction of religion into the workforce. Employees who insist on a God-given right to bash gays at the workplace are subject to termination ― despite their right to express their religious beliefs. An employee whose religion opposes taking orders from women will lose his job if he ignores his female bosses. Whether missionary work is central to one’s creed, unwanted proselytizing will get you fired.

Similarly, it’s within an employer’s prerogative to prohibit conversations during working time and in the workplace about topics such as politics, religion, and sexuality. Among the classic topics an employer can ban from the active work floor is the debate between creationism and evolution, the quintessential wedge issue for nearly a century (see Inherit the Wind, MGM, 1960). Most employers prohibit talking about the origins of the universe at work.

But what if your job is to discover the cosmic mysteries of the universe? Can you talk about celestial origins then? That question is being played out in the Los Angeles Superior Court courtroom right now.

Mastering HR Report: Discrimination

NASA scientist sees more than stars and planets in the skies
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is running the Cassini Saturn project, exploring Saturn and its moons. David Coppedge was a team-lead computer specialist on the mission. He believes in intelligent design―the theory that life is too complex to be explained by evolution. He doesn’t care that the broad scientific consensus (including that of all his coworkers) disagrees with him because, he says, science is often wrong.

In 2009, Coppedge was demoted, and in 2011, he was fired. The California Institute of Technology, which runs the JPL for NASA, says he was fired as part of a large reduction in force that affected over 200 employees. Coppedge says his demotion and termination were the result of religious discrimination.

While the JPL denies that religious discrimination formed any part of the basis for its actions against Coppedge, his supervisor, Greg Chin, does say he was the subject of over 15 complaints from coworkers regarding his “uncooperative attitude, poor listening and intellectual skills and . . . technical performance.” Coppedge argued at work that the newly named “Holiday Party” should be renamed the “Christmas Party” and argued with coworkers over Proposition 8, California’s same-sex marriage ban. While the JPL maintained that the whole issue is irrelevant to what was ultimately a routine reduction in force, its legal briefs differentiated between Coppedge’s religious beliefs (which are constitutionally protected) and his abusive workplace conduct (which is not).

The matter is further muddied by Coppedge’s request to introduce into evidence an intelligent design DVD he showed to coworkers and introduce an expert on religion to explain whether intelligent design is a proposal of scientific fact or religious dogma. The trial judge has indicated that he will allow the DVD to be shown to him in this bench (nonjury) trial but won’t allow any religious expert to testify.

HR Guide to Employment Law, including religious discrimination and accommodation

God only knows
The nuances of this debate display exactly why most employers put a wide fence around any discussion of religion and keep it away from the workplace. Where does protected speech end and the right to be free from proselytizing begin? Where does one person’s freedom to exercise religion begin to conflict with another’s right to exercise unfettered secularism?

From your perspective, it is safest to keep the entire topic out of the workforce to avoid exactly the kind of lawsuit the JPL now faces. Unfortunately, that’s becoming more easily said than done, as religion is encroaching more and more into public debate.

Religion has always had a unique place among constitutional freedoms, carrying more benefits and more restrictions than any other type of speech. Alone among all forms of expression, religious property isn’t taxed, and religious institutions are exempted from almost every form of antidiscrimination law. On the flip side, however, while other interests can freely meet in public settings on public property, oftentimes religious groups cannot. In both its freedoms and restrictions, nothing is as complex as religious speech, as Cal Tech, NASA, and the JPL are now learning.

Apparently, this issue is harder than rocket science.

Mark I. Schickman is a partner with Freeland Cooper & Foreman LLP in San Francisco and editor of California Employment Law Letter. You can reach him at (415) 541-0200 or schickman@freelandlaw.com.