In a court proceeding reminiscent of last century's Scopes Monkey Trial, lawyers for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory find themselves battling a push by intelligent design proponents seeking legitimacy.
On the surface, the civil case between former JPL systems administrator David Coppedge and JPL at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in Los Angeles is a wrongful termination lawsuit.
But much more is at stake for both proponents and opponents of the theory that God created the universe.
Coppedge is "trying to put science on trial," said Joshua Rosenau, program and policy director for the National Center for Science Education.
In fact, Rosenau argues Coppedge is "trying to turn a simple employment law case into a discussion on intelligent design."
Coppedge sued JPL in 2011 on the grounds that the science laboratory used his expressed support of intelligent design to hasten his exit during last year's round of layoffs.
His JPL supervisors reprimanded Coppedge in March 2009 for distributing two intelligent design DVDs: "Unlocking the Mystery of Life" and the "Privileged Planet."
Folks like Coppedge contend intelligent design is real science, while the theory's critics have called it "creationism in a lab coat."
Coppedge, a darling of the creationist/intelligent design community, runs a creationist blog. He has been a member of the Bible Science Association for more than 20 years, according to Coppedge's own testimony.
"Through his links to Bible science groups it's clear to see the linkages to creation science and intelligence design," Rosenau said.
JPL supervisors told Coppedge to cease distributing the DVDs, which the agency viewed as religious in nature. He was also told to avoid engaging co-workers in political and religious dialogue during work hours.
Since the civil trial kicked off March 12, Coppedge has testified that his JPL supervisors reacted with hostility to his open expression of his political and religious beliefs and influenced their reviews of his performance at the lab.
"I thought I might be the next `Expelled,"' Coppedge testified, making a reference to the Ben Stein movie which details the perils faced by those in the scientific community who support intelligent design.
JPL denies Coppedge's claims and the lab's attorneys have presented evidence to bolster their claim that Coppedge was a problem employee. They also argue that Coppedge's layoff was part of a normal reduction in force called for in NASA's budget.
With 21 witnesses to call, the case is expected to last several weeks. But, when Judge Ernest Hiroshige renders his decision, the announcement will resonate far beyond the walls of the Stanley Mosk Courthouse, according to advocates for both evolutionary theory and intelligent design.
The Coppedge case has become cause c l bre for proponents of both evolution and intelligent design and in some ways has reignited a debate started more than 86 years ago with the Scopes Monkey Trial.
Evolution proponents say it is an example of creationists attacking Darwin.
Darwin supporters believe if Coppedge wins at trial, creationists will exploit the finding and claim they've triumphed over big science.
"These groups have a history of distorting information; this might be seen as a win by groups like the Discovery Institute," National Center for Science Education spokesman Robert Luhn said.
Such a win could influence legislative battles in Tennessee, Florida, Texas, Missouri, Kentucky, Oklahoma and New Mexico, where over the past 18 months there have been "attempts to wind back the clock," Luhn said.
In Luhn's estimation, creationists and intelligent design proponents like Coppedge want to return to the time before the Scopes Monkey Trial, when the Bible was used to teach public schoolchildren about the origin of life.
"There's a nationwide movement of science denial, being pushed by people who do so as a matter of belief or for political reasons," Luhn said.
The conservative Discovery Institute has skin in the game, too. Josh Youngkin, a Discovery Institute staff attorney, is assisting attorney William J. Becker Jr. in Coppedge's lawsuit. And Becker himself is an attorney for the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative Christian advocacy group.
Conservatives sees Coppedge's advocacy for creationism as having a place in JPL's mission in finding the origin of the universe.
"What happened to David Coppedge, that's not a free society," said John West, senior fellow at the Discovery Institute. "Science is supposed to be open to discussion."
West and the Discovery Institute have spent more than a decade trying to sell intelligent design to the broader scientific community.
The organization even put out the controversial "Wedge Document," where the Discovery Institute spelled out its goals to "overthrow" materialism and replace it with "broadly theistic understanding of nature."
West said the document was used as a fundraising letter to make an argument for man's dominion over the Earth, the importance of God in science and the end of materialism, which West insists is responsible for the rise of eugenics in the early 20th century.
The scientific community hasn't budged on its adherence to evolution, and those in the scientific community say there is good reason to separate science from intelligent design.
"People in philosophy and science want things that are testable and intelligent design doesn't make claims that are testable," Rosenau said. "Intelligent design, when you look at it, it's not science."
Or as Luhn put it: "We are not teaching alchemy side-by-side with chemistry."
Coppedge supporters brush off such comments.
"The fact that the other side won't engage in debate and will engage in ad hominem shows you that how weak the other side's argument must be," West said.
Ultimately intelligent design proponents want to debate.
"The end goal is to get to a place where intelligent design and the criticism of Darwinism can rise and fall on its own merits," West said.