Belief in radically unconventional scientific notions, such as "cold fusion" or cryptic messages from extraterrestrials, may merit the same workplace protections as freedom of religion, according to a ruling by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in a job-discrimination case.

The July 7 EEOC decision came in response to a complaint by maverick Alexandria astronomer and erstwhile patent examiner Paul A. LaViolette, who was fired in April 1999 by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

LaViolette, 52, claimed the action was taken because he believes in the validity of a highly controversial energy-generation idea called "cold fusion," along with other unorthodox matters, and protested the decision to the PTO.

His Web site, www.etheric.com, details his "proof" of the existence of alien radio communication, his theory that the zodiac is a "time capsule message" warning of emanations from the galactic center and his views on the Sphinx, the Tarot and Atlantis, along with his considerable accomplishments in mainstream science.

The PTO's parent agency, the Commerce Department, evaluated LaViolette's complaint, and on Sept. 13, 1999, dismissed his case. The agency concluded that even if he had suffered reprisal for his cold-fusion beliefs, those beliefs did not fall within the protective purview of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That statute prohibits workplace discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

LaViolette then appealed the ruling to the EEOC, arguing that "discrimination against a person on account of his beliefs is the essence of discrimination on the basis of religion."

"I don't want to explain everything" while the complaint is still under consideration, LaViolette said in an interview. "But there 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," he said.

Title VII defines religion to include "all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief."

The EEOC looked at the relevant criteria for protected religious beliefs as explicated by the Supreme Court and found two main considerations: "whether the belief professed by a complainant is sincerely held and whether it is, in his own scheme of things, religious." In addition, the commission's reviewers considered EEOC guidelines, which note that "the fact that no religious group espouses such beliefs . . . will not determine whether the belief is a religious belief of the employee."

Faced with those flexible standards, the EEOC decided the Commerce Department had improperly dismissed LaViolette's complaint.

However, "we did not make a determination as to whether those two criteria [for valid religious belief] are fulfilled" in LaViolette's case, said Carlton Hadden, director of the EEOC's Office of Federal Operations. "Nor did we determine whether the complainant's claims of religious violation are true." Basically, "we just sat down and said the agency had improperly dismissed that claim, and put it back in the ballpark of the Department of Commerce."

Under EEOC rules, Commerce has 150 days after the decision to complete its investigation. If Commerce concludes, after gathering more information, that his claim is still invalid, then it can dismiss the complaint again. And if LaViolette is not satisfied, he can request a hearing before an EEOC administrative judge, who would rule on the complaint.

A PTO spokeswoman said the agency would not comment on the pending matter.

LaViolette is the director and president of the Starburst Foundation, a nonprofit that funds his research, and the author of four books, most recently "The Talk of the Galaxy: An ET Message for Us?" All are published by Starlane Publications, which he founded.

He joined the PTO following an Internet appeal by patent examiner Thomas Valone, who in 1998 called for "all able-bodied free energy technologists" to "infiltrate" the agency, according to published reports. Valone's activities caught the attention of University of Maryland physics professor Robert Park, who directs the Washington office of the American Physical Society.

Park, author of a new book, "Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud," is a severe critic of many "new energy" notions, and has publicized the Valone-LaViolette story extensively. LaViolette feels such actions have prejudiced the PTO.

"I'm trying to bring to light this issue through my case. People should not be thrown out just because they have ideas that are not agreed to by Robert Park or the American Physical Society," LaViolette said. "The ideas that are going to change the world are those that we maybe don't have answers for right now."