Should Creationism Ever be a Firing Offense?

David Coppedge had a job most computer experts would kill for. He worked for NASA as a computer specialist, as a team leader on the Cassini mission, oriented towards the exploration of Saturn. Coppedge is also a Creationist, though, and he claims that this got him fired after 15 years on the job.

Of course, NASA and Caltech have a very different version of the story. They say Coppedge was confrontational, aggressive, and refused suggestions for retraining when it became apparent his position was in danger due to reductions in the project. There is also the matter of just how his Creationism manifested itself. It appears Coppedge frequently advocated so-called “Intelligent Design” to his co-workers, and even handed out free DVDs (produced by a company on whose board he sits) discussing the scientific evidence for Creationism which, if the DVDs were accurate, is at least a nice gesture, since you can always use another blank DVD.

This matter will be resolved in court. I know where my suspicions lie in the matter of Creation Safari Master Coppedge. However this does beg the question: Is it ever appropriate to fire someone due to his Creationism?

My tentative instinct is to say no, it’s not, even in cases where evolution is a central aspect of the subject matter, like a biology research lab. As long as a person is carrying out their responsibilities, being productive and cooperative and causing no strife with co-workers, there should be almost no belief that warrants dismissal on it’s own. I do think that Creationism, insofar as it shows an ignorance or disdain of the methods of science, can and should be used as a negative factor when considering hiring, promotion, and extension of a scientist. I don’t think you should hire a physicist who doesn’t accept gravity, either.

What would you do, if you worked for a scientific institution and learned that a prospective hire was a Creationist? Would you hire that person?

About Claudia

I'm a lifelong atheist and a molecular biologist with a passion for science and a passionate opposition to its enemies.

  • TheExpatriate700

    I have to agree with you, Hemant, it is not a good thing, unless he was pushing his beliefs to a level that it interfered with work. That said, I say that because his field of science is not linked to evolution in a major way. If he were a biologist, and his beliefs affected what he was studying, then he should not be in the position.

    • http://twitter.com/donovanable Kate Donovan

      I want to point out that it’s Claudia who wrote this article. (wonderful debut, btw).
      Secondly, I’d agree with you, and also add that I wouldn’t want to promote him into any position of management either–given that he appears not to have the social tact to stop handing out proselytizing materials to his coworkers.

    • Conspirator

      Someone named Claudia wrote this piece, not Hemant.  And this guy was pushing his beliefs on his coworkers to the point that he was asked to stop and he did not. 

  • http://twitter.com/markdturner Mark Turner

    I completely agree, discovering someone was a creationist in a job interview would raise a big red flag. It’s not so much an indication of what they think, more of how they think. Being able to reason, evaluate evidence and draw conclusions is a big part of a large number of jobs in all kinds of sectors. By publicising your creationist view points you are effectively standing up and saying you can’t do any of those things.

    • Drakk

       I wouldn’t be so sure. All it proves is that they’re not willing to apply the same thought process to that particular aspect of their worldview.

      …having said that, I wonder which is the worse case.

  • Onamission5

    In my opinion as a former person in charge of hiring for my department, offensive or ignorant beliefs are not in and of themselves a non-hiring or firing offense. However, should someone decide to disregard workplace etiquitte or HR protocols and cause a hostile work environment for their coworkers due to their beliefs,  and refuses to cease, that is indeed a firing offense. I don’t know if that is what Coppedge did or not.

  • Tainda

    I don’t think beliefs should be considered in the hiring or firing of someone.

    It sounds like he constantly hounded his co-workers though and THAT is what I would fire someone for.

    • sunburned

      I don’t know about that.  If someone applied for a job and believed that Teddy Roosevelt was president, I’m pretty sure that they would have believed themselves out of a job.

  • RevGalen

    Would I hire a creationist if I worked for a scientific institution? Hell no.

  • Conspirator

    As I understand it this guy was routinely pushing his religious views on his coworkers, as such he was causing problems at work, he was told multiple times to stop harassing his coworkers and he did not.  So he had it coming, and it wasn’t because he was a creationist, just that he was an asshole.

    That being said, if I was hiring someone in any science based field and I found that they were a creationist I would be suspicious of their understanding of the scientific method and their grasp of reality.  Their work in the specific field would have to blow me away for me to seriously consider them.  If I hired someone without knowing that, and found out later, I would have to look at whether or not they were letting those beliefs affect their work.  

    Now there are certain areas, microbiology perhaps (I’m not trained in these areas so I may be wrong), where I think a thorough understanding of evolution is necessary to move forward in the field, so firing them outright might be reasonable there.  After all, would you want someone who needs to understand how bacteria are evolving to get past vaccines working on new vaccines if they don’t believe that is happening?

  • Richard Hughes

    Actually being a creationist is probably fireable, since it implies a level of incompetence at many of these fields. Ardently believing that you ARE a creationist, even though you really are not, probably should not be a fireable offense. To whit: http://lesswrong.com/lw/r/no_really_ive_deceived_myself/

  • rokorox

    This reminds me of the old “Intelligent Falling” article from the Onion:

    http://www.theonion.com/articles/evangelical-scientists-refute-gravity-with-new-int,1778/

  • Golfie98

    Having been “let go” from a job by a creationist when, after being a top class employee, he found out I was gay I would say I would never base a hire or fire on the basis of beliefs but on the ability and willingness to do the job as required. If their beliefs get in the way of that then no job if not then job. If they were disruptive then they would be treated like any other disruptive person – challenged, then made them aware of what was expected of them in order to do the job and if they felt they could not comply or refused to comply then shown the door. I would never do to a creationist what that creationist did to me.

    • Ndonnan

      This was the first comparable sinario i thought of,and what Golfie says i agree with 100%.This man got to the position he was in  because he was brilliant at what he does, and that should be the first criteria for the job.However as with all working enviroments its important that people have basic social  protocols.Exactly how bad this man was is only hearsay from our perspective,was he rude or were others just offendable.People talking about their passion like men with sport and ladys with fashion can be a bore,but isnt a firable offence.

  • thompjs

    Besides being an A-hole, he also had a financial interest in the DVD’s if I’ve gotten the story right.  I’d get fired if I was always trying to sell something at the office beyond some Girl Scout cookies or similar.

    I imagine the JPL will be pounding on his being a pain in the neck to the co-workers.
    His ID beliefs would have little to do with his job.

  • Carla

    If a person chooses to believe dogma over evidence, that person has no business working a place of science. Especially not when other’s lives (or millions of dollars) rely on his ability to evaluate evidence and make good decisions. What if he decides one day that this computer anomaly is god’s will, and we’ll just hope and pray it out? If his analysis of the evidence for creationism is any example, this isn’t an unlikely scenario. 

    A church wouldn’t be compelled to keep an atheist pastor because they could not accurately and effectively enhance/provide a religious experience. A science institution should not be compelled to keep a religious scientist because they cannot accurately and effectively evaluate evidence and make decisions. If religion gets protection from science, then science should get protected from religion.

    • http://www.facebook.com/keithacollyer Keith Collyer

      We all believe dogma over evidence, the human mind has a great way of ignoring evidence we don’t like. The issue with creationism is that there is overwhelming evidence that it is wrong, it’s like driving somewhere on the wheel rims because you refuse to believe that the tyres are all flat.
      On the main question, no, you shouldn’t fire someone because they are a creationist. However, if their behaviour stemming from that belief was interfering with their work, or the work of others, that would certainly be grounds.

      • Carla

        You shouldn’t fire “someone” because of their beliefs. Office workers are safe. But you should be able to fire a scientist for choosing religious beliefs over science. That, to me, is evidence that he cannot do his science job effectively, and should join a religious organization where his lack of evaluation will be appreciated. Again, if science isn’t allowed in religion, then religion isn’t allowed in science.

        • Derrik Pates

          As long as they can do their job, and do it *competently* – which would require keeping their personal beliefs separate from the nature of their job – then I think it’s probably okay. It would be concerning if they went out of their way to make a big deal out of it, sure – but odds are, if they can’t do their job without bringing that up, they can’t keep their job function and their personal beliefs separate either.

  • Glasofruix

    A creationnist as a science class teacher? Totally firable.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=743013638 Gem Rees

      I will respectfully disagree with this.

      There’s nothing at all wrong with a science teacher being a creationist, as long as he/she teaches the course materials without allowing their own bias to affect their students’ education.

      • Tim

        I was taught evolution by a creationist in school (here in the UK).  He started off by saying, “my personal belief is that God made all the plants and animals as it says in the Bible” and then went on to explain evolution fansaticallly well and utterly convincingly.  he was one of the best teachers I had and the person who I credit with me becoming a Biologist. 

    • Forrest Pugh

      It depends entirely on the individual – if they actively deride evolution as a fallacy, absurd joke, or worse – then yes – fire them. On the other hand, I was raised in a Christian environment, and would say that in a broad and comprehensive sense I received a superior education than in the public school system I finally graduated out of.

      I had 2 years of Christian Highschool and 2 years of Public Highschool. Our biology class was good – we focused more on systems and anatomy of various animals, and paid accurate if brief attention to evolution as a valid scientific theory. Our teacher and the church doctrine plainly rejected it, but it was still presented fairly and factually.

      I agree that vouchers and private church schooling are *often* an end run to keep children “in the fold” but that will eventually backfire as they ignorant children are exposed to the real-world and realize their bubble is an absurd fiction (if they don’t already get it)… it happened to me.

  • ortcutt

    Would I hire someone who believes in Creationism for a scientific position?  Hell, no.  What more evidence do you need that someone doesn’t have a scientific attitude to questions of reason and evidence?  That ipso facto makes him or her unsuitable for a scientific position.  

  • 0xabad1dea

    Pretty sure it is not legal in the US to refuse to hire someone solely because they are creationist. Such a thing is necessary to protect everyone overall. (However, if they *refuse to fulfill a documented duty on account of their creationism* then it is legal.)

    Also, it would be nice if the blog layout could be tweaked to make non-Hemant posts more obvious, ie putting the picture at the top instead of the bottom.

  • Elabryth

    If that creationist has ANYTHING to do with Science, then… YES!!!!

  • http://twitter.com/AchronTimeless Achron Timeless

    Well, it’s like hiring a history teacher for your school and finding out they’re a holocaust denier and intend to teach that to their students. Sometimes what someone chooses to believe is an issue, because THEY make it one.

  • Renshia

     I would find it hard to believe that after 15 years, all of a sudden his beliefs would be an issue. Unless he made it one, which sounds more like is the case here.

    I think age would be a factor making that decision. I could accept an older person that was brought up to believe it, if I didn’t think it would affect his work. But a younger person, with the level of information available now days. would have to be willingly ignorant to hold this belief. So no I think it would be a warning sign of someone exceptionally stubborn and inflexible. It would be someone who would have to be so ridged in their thinking that it would almost be impossible to mold them into the team.

  • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    A creationist who does his job probably can’t be fired simply for being a creationist. It’s just asking for legal troubles.

    Back when I owned a company, I had a policy of not hiring anybody who was obviously religious. I asked a few questions about secular beliefs, and made sure they were comfortable working on any day of the week (I didn’t ask any specifically religious questions, though).

    This was a high tech company, and I considered (and still do) anybody with religious views to be potential liabilities. In all my employees, I valued rational, critical thinking, which I don’t think is as likely to be present in the religious.

    It is, of course, much easier to simply avoid hiring somebody than it is to later fire them.

    • Thegoodman

       Holy shit! You sound like the dream employer.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    What goes on between a person’s ears is nobody’s business but theirs. What goes on between a person’s legs is nobody’s business but theirs and their consenting adult partner’s.  What goes on between a person’s hands, meaning the work they do and how well they perform it, is definitely the business of their employer.

    If Coppedge allowed his beliefs to affect his actual job performance, such as something weird like insisting that the speed of light is not a reliable constant (as some very silly Young Earth Creationists do to explain stars and galaxies farther than a few thousand light years) and as a result he screwed up the trajectory of Cassini, that would warrant his firing.

    The issue of being a nuisance or an irritation to co-workers with his non job related ID nonsense is a more murky matter. In my opinion, social disharmony has to be so extreme that it interferes with other workers’ job performance to be justifiable cause for firing. If all they do is roll their eyes behind his back, that’s not enough to fire him.

    The matter of hiring and promoting someone who holds views that are contrary to the science they will be using is also a murky matter, but I think the employer would have a little more ability to not hire or promote him/her if the employer could show a justifiable lack of  confidence that they would be able to perform reliable science because of those views.

  • DG

    Probably best view to have.  Unless moderns want to hear endless charges of ‘Galileo’s revenge’ and ‘It’s Galileo Redux!’, best not to fire as long as they are doing their job, and not doing anything else that would get them fired (but then, anyone who does anything like that should be fired anyway, no matter what they believe).

  • Alexandra

    If I somehow managed to figure out that they were a creationist before hiring them, I wouldn’t.  They’re probably doing something wrong if creationism comes up before they’re even employed.  

  • Fred

    re: sunburned’s ” If someone applied for a job and believed that Teddy Roosevelt was president”

    Teddy Roosevelt WAS president. He just isn’t currently.  :)
     

  • Baby_Raptor

    If he was really harassing his coworkers, then his being fired is legit, religious belief or no. It’s still harassment of other people. 

  • Parse

    If I found out a prospective hire was a creationist, my actions would really depend on HOW I found out they were a creationist, and how central it is to their life.  In 95% of the time, I actually wouldn’t have a problem with it, so long as it wouldn’t interfere with their job performance.  The things that would throw red flags, that would prevent me from hiring them:
     - If they bring up creationism during the job interview out of the blue.  If I’m not mistaken, religion is a protected employment category; but even if it isn’t, it’s inappropriate to ask about for the type of job I would hire for.  The fact that they bring it up shows that they don’t know what sort of behavior is work-appropriate.
     - If they use their creationist views to imply superior character traits.  ”Because I’m a God-fearing creationist, you can know that I’m an honest person.”  The relationship between faith and most character traits are generally independent; there are honest and dishonest creationists, just like there are trustworthy and untrustworthy atheists.
     - If they have a history of using their affiliation with companies (or universities, labs, etc), to suggest that the place they work for supports their view.  See the ‘Cornell’ conference at the Pandas Thumb (links one and two), for one example.  

    Things that would not raise flags: 
     - Using leadership positions in creationist organizations as an example of leadership/responsibility
     - Membership in creationist organizations.  If they keep work and religion separate, everything’s fine.
     - Casual talk about their faith, when it is appropriate.  If people are talking about what they did the past weekend, and you mentioned that you attended a creationist expo, that’s not a problem, at least as job/religion separation.  (The loss of respect from others when you mention that you went, though, is entirely your own fault).

  • Shanine

    Is it ok to fire a teacher in a Christian school who doesn’t believe in creation? or not hire them even though they are brilliant.  The  man’s must be good at what he does if he got a job at NASA!! As for firing him because he made life at work difficult fine, just as I’d be fine with the firing of a non believer who laughed at believers daily in a horrible way to make them feel meaningless.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Margaret-Whitestone/100001682409207 Margaret Whitestone

    If the person is competent at their job and doesn’t use their beliefs to disrupt the workplace I wouldn’t have a problem with having him/her there.   

  • Marco Conti

    Judging from his webpage, which is embarrassingly designed, he doesn’t seem to be all there.

    He seems to have a predilection for dressing like a 17th century trapper and standing in defiance of the laws of gravitation.

  • Keaton Stagaman

    I”m a grad student in the Institute of Evolution and Ecology at the University of Oregon, so my position the the issue of evolution’s validity should be obvious.  While us grad students have no direct impact on the hiring of faculty, we do get a chance to talk to faculty about prospective hires.  I can say that, at least in this field, a creationist would simply not be hired to our institute.  It’s, strictly mathematically speaking, possible that a creationist could be hired by the Biology Department as a member of a different institute, but I would be shocked.  While this fact would probably be construed as “scientific dogmatism” by creationist and ID proponents, to us it’s the same as not hiring a faculty member who didn’t accept that DNA was the molecule that contained genetic information (epigenetics aside, yadda yadda), or that whales are mammals.  A faculty member who was a creationist would not be expected to be able to conduct rigorous and important biological research, and should not be hired.  

    Now, at lower levels, the story is different.  There are plenty of areas of biology in which a creationist could work as a lab tech.  Again, I would be hesitant to hire them, and if they could keep their beliefs out of the lab, it would be possible, but there are so many people that apply for any position, unless they demonstrated themselves to be well above and beyond any other applicant, it would probably prevent them from being hired.

  • CBrachyrhynchos

    It depends. In the publish-or-perish world of many research fields, a record of trying to field publications and grant proposals unsupported by existing literature would certainly be a liability for many institutions. Educational institutions can set a requirement for teaching to  local and national science curriculum standards regardless of personal beliefs about the validity of those standards.

    But in the absence of a bona fide job requirement or (in this case) potential violation of policies about harassment, it should be covered by civil rights law.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Human-Ape/100001623230964 Human Ape

    “Should Creationism Ever be a Firing Offense?”

    Yes, unless the job is cleaning toilets.

    darwinkilledgod dot blogspot dot com

  • James

    I must say that I was very lucky having attended a catholic grade school and had a botanist with a Ph.D. as our science teacher 6th-8th grade. Although she was catholic herself, she taught evolution and,to my knowledge, was never reprimanded for it. I think she still teaches there! To this day I thank Mrs. Hogan for respecting us by showing us the facts and letting us figure it out for ourselves. If only every theist scientist was this reasonable, there would be less David Coppedge situations!

  • http://twitter.com/MerkinMcMuff Merkin

    So… a creationist lied about how he got fired.  I’m not surprised.  I wish I were his boss, though.  I’d fire him in a heartbeat for spouting creationist crap.

  • evilunderthesun_JLT

    Coppedge wasn’t fired because of his creationism, if you believe JPL.

    “Defense attorneys scoffed at the accusation that Coppedge was targeted
    because of his beliefs. Due to budget cuts, including to the Cassini
    project, more than 200 employees also lost their jobs.

    Coppedge had also waved off suggestions to update his computer skills
    and was saddled with a reputation for being “unwilling to listen and
    always having to do things his way,” defense attorneys said in court
    papers.

    In fact, during closing arguments, Fox asked the judge to recall
    Coppedge’s demeanor on the witness stand. He repeatedly wandered off
    topic to discuss intelligent design.” (http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-jpl-trial-20120430,0,7534196.story)

    I tend to believe JPL in this matter. Coppedge worked for JPL for over 15 years, and he never hid being a creationist. Why should it had become such a problem suddenly that it warranted his lay-off? That someone who doesn’t stay up-to-date with his workskills and is a bad team-player is layed-off together with 200 other employeees doesn’t indicate that the main reason for his dismissal was his creationism, IMO.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Coppedge was not fired for Creationism. He was fired as part of larger layoffs, and for being an asshole.
    .
    I work in a research lab. I know a couple of my co-workers are Creationist. One is a physicist with leanings toward Intelligent Design. Another is an engineer who is a YEC. In neither instance does the Creationism impact on job performance.

  • Thegoodman

    As a moderately successful engineer who may be in a position of hiring some day; if I ever interview a candidate or have an employee who willingly ignores scientific evidence in order to substantiate a belief that is not based on evidence, I will not hire them and I will do what I can to have them no longer work for me.

    In STEM fields, the ability to review evidence and make a decision based completely and ONLY on that evidence is important. A creationist is very clearly, to me, not capable of doing this. My view has nothing to do with religious affiliation and everything to do with the denial of facts.

    This person can struggle with their belief and disbelief of factual data while under the umbrella of a different employer, but not on my watch.

  • T-Rex

    He sounds like he’d be more comfortable working at Mr. Ham’s creationist “museum”. Gotta wonder how he ever got hired at NASA with faulty wiring in his cranium.

  • https://me.yahoo.com/a/Ozbj00s1p9JzCmp7F5S9fZgbBMOWLYfIKPdXZUU-#18040 interestsarefree

    You know that Christian Right is going to jump all over this and say, “See?!? Good Christians are being singled out for their religion by the atheistic and agnostic scientific community. Why?!? Because they know we speak the truth!”

    His attorney says he never evangelized or proselytized to his co-workers, yet he handed out information on creationism. There were also multiple harassment claims against him and he lost his “lead” status because of ongoing conflicts with co-workers. Icing on the cake, his job was getting cut anyway due to the budget.

    How is this “solely because of his creationism” again? I don’t know. I only hope his defense doesn’t turn what should be a straightforward employment law care into Kitzmiller v Dover Area School District Part 2.

  • http://profiles.google.com/noadiart Sheryl Westleigh

    No, just belief in creationism wouldn’t be grounds to fire or not hire anyone. However harassing coworkers is certainly grounds for getting rid of anyone, whether it’s creationism, proselytizing, political ranting, or pushing Amway. It’s creating a hostile work environment.

  • http://profiles.google.com/tedhohio Ted Herrlich

    The court of public opinion has been heavily leaning in Coppedge’s corner mainly because the only side heard from has been Coppedge and the spinmiesters at the Discovery Institute.  It’s now in the judges hands but several things that have come out in the press is interesting:
    1.  The Discovery Institute keep claiming that Coppedge was discriminated against for religious reasons, yet they keep claiming that their belief set isn’t religious.  Anyone else find that funny?
    2.  He claims to have ‘discussed’ his religion with hundreds of fellow employees.  I don’t know about you, but hundreds sounds more like preaching that discussing.
    3.  JPL has been noticeably silent.  When is the only time lawyers don’t want to be in the limelight?  Usually when they know they do not need it.  Another interesting data point.
    4.  I find it also interesting that while being sued for his apparent demotion, they choose to fire him as part of a large layoff.  Now I don’t know about you, but lawyers aren’t stupid, well I doubt JPLs are, I can’t speak about Coppedge’s.  I mean anyone read about the Mt Vernon OH case of the fired school teacher?  He tried the religious discrimination and it’s failed him.  He was fired for failing to teach the subject he was hired to teach and the antics of his lawyer seems to irritate the judge there.
    5.  He was employed there for over 14 years.  His Creationist leanings have been known for quite some time.  Why did things suddenly come to a head?  I doubt it was anything sudden, but a pattern of inappropriate behavior takes time, as do accumulated complaints.  If he had been canned the first time he mentioned it, he might have a leg to stand on, but 14 years?
    Like I said a few things have caught my eye.  I will be surprised if the Judge sides with Coppedge.  If not, I bet he appeals over and over again. 

  • Logic4l

    I work as a software developer at a small company, and we did end up hiring a guy who mentioned in the interview that he has a Master’s in theology, and switched to computers only when he realized how useless that kind of degree is. Still – he gave a good interview, and it would have never crossed my mind to not hire him because I was worried his thought processes would hinder his ability to do his job. I realize there is a lot less cognitive dissonance required for a devout person to work in computer science than, say, physics or biology, but he did turn out to be a good hire, and our company would have been the worse for not hiring him.

  • http://profiles.google.com/statueofmike Michael S

    I’d fire him from any job that requires him to use his imagination or give opinions, because I know he isn’t working with the sharpest tools. The exception would be some kind of purely artistic work.

    Cook a pizza or build a road? Sure. Paint an amusing portrait of his strange creationist fever-dreams? Ok.

    Rely on him to explore the universe and further human understanding? Next, please…

  • Solid Rock800

    Wow, I gotta say, I’m appalled that so many people think that creationists are somehow less rational, realistic, or capable than everyone else. I know many creationists, and they’re all highly intelligent people. They just see the evidence in a different way than others do, it’s a different interpretation. It doesn’t make them automatically ignorant or incompetent in any way.

    Methinks people should take a step back from straight science sometimes and take a second to think about things like culture, philosophy, etc. Those things play a part in life, too.