Should Paul A. LaViolette get his job back? LaViolette last year lost his job at the U.S. Patent Office. In a legal complaint filed against the Commerce Department, the Patent Office's parent agency, LaViolette claimed that his firing constituted reprisal for his belief in cold fusion, and therefore violated Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which protects federal employees against discrimination based on religion. The Commerce Department--then headed by Al Gore's campaign manager, Bill Daley--didn't buy it. LaViolette next appealed his case to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He argued that
"[d]iscrimination against a person on account of his beliefs is the essence of discrimination on the basis of religion," and therefore ought to be protected. In essence, LaViolette argued that his belief in cold fusion--the doctrine, widely disparaged by mainstream scientists, that energy can be generated inexpensively at low temperatures through fusion of hydrogen or deuterium nuclei--constituted, or was somehow congruent with, belief in a Supreme Being. Here is how he put it in an interview with Curt Suplee of the Washington Post:
[T]here is a connection between my scientific beliefs and my very deep religious feelings. ... A lot of people normally associate religious belief with doctrinaire belief, something unchanging. Mine are based on observation and subject to change based on new findings. My views do evolve, and that is still compatible with this being deeply religious or sacred.
In a July 7 decision, the EEOC agreed with LaViolette's reasoning and referred LaViolette's case back to the Commerce Department. [Correction, 9/8: LaViolette did not play the religion card in his original Commerce Department complaint--only in his subsequent appeal to the EEOC. In the EEOC appeal, LaViolette claimed discrimination not only against his belief in cold fusion, but also, he informs Chatterbox, "more broadly ... against my views on nonconventional energy generation technologies" and "writings and scientific theories I have published." Chatterbox regrets these errors.]
As a matter of law, the EEOC decision strikes Chatterbox as utterly nonsensical. (It is also terrible PR for anyone who wants cold fusion to be taken seriously as science.) Here is the key passage:
"In determining which beliefs are protected under Title VII, the Supreme Court has held that the test is whether the belief professed by a complainant is sincerely held and whether it is, in his own scheme of things, religious." Akers v. Department of Transportation, EEOC Appeal No. 09132415 (May 25, 1993), citing Welsh v. United States, 398 U.S. 333 (1970). Moreover, in defining religious beliefs, our guidelines note that "the fact that no religious group espouses such beliefs ... will not determine whether the belief is a religious belief of the employee ..."
Welsh was a Supreme Court decision involving a Vietnam-era draftee who claimed exemption as a conscientious objector even though he would neither affirm nor deny belief in God. The decision was a tad shaky, but at least Welsh was able to argue that he was animated by moral belief. The EEOC now appears to be broadening the definition of religion to include not only moral belief, but scientific belief. Paul LaViolette says his scientific beliefs can't be separated from his religious beliefs (though, to make things even more complicated, LaViolette makes a distinction between religious belief and faith: "I don't consider my scientific beliefs a matter of faith ... they're based on evidence," he told Chatterbox). What's to stop people from asserting that any belief is inseparable from religion? If Bill Gates were to claim as religious his belief that all U.S. patents should be issued to Microsoft Corp., could he demand a job at the U.S. Patent Office too?
The legal issue, however, is only one of many questions raised by LaViolette's case. What did LaViolette actually do, beyond being a somewhat colorful character (click here to see his Web site, and click here to read a recent profile of LaViolette in WashingtonCity Paper), that made the Patent Office want to get rid of him? Is there a plot afoot, as some contend, for cold-fusion devotees to infiltrate the Patent Office, in much the same way that Communist Party members infiltrated labor unions during the 1930s? What's going on at that little-pondered-but-important federal agency, anyway? Chatterbox will examine these questions tomorrow.