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Teacher's Lawsuit Over Evolution Rejected : Courts: Federal appellate panel reverses ruling that Capistrano Unified educator should have his day in court to argue that district officials' requirement leads to the promotion of atheism.


SAN FRANCISCO — Without explanation, a federal appeals court abruptly reversed itself Tuesday and ruled that a former Orange County biology teacher cannot sue the Capistrano Unified School District for requiring him to teach evolution.

Without being asked to do so by either side, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals nullified its own July 25 ruling that John Peloza should have his day in court to argue that district officials were promoting atheism by requiring him to teach evolution.

Peloza, 39, a teacher at Capistrano Valley High School, filed a $5-million lawsuit against the school district in 1991, charging that his superiors were trying to force him to teach evolution as indisputable fact.

District officials reprimanded the one-time runner-up for teacher of the year after parents complained that he proselytized in class. These included the parents of a Jewish student who said Peloza told their daughter that people who don't believe in Jesus Christ "are going to hell."

While the dispute split the campus along religious lines, Peloza emerged as the hero of fundamentalist Christians who trace many of society's current ills to the 1963 decision banning prayer in public schools.

Peloza and his supporters were stung by the panel's about-face Tuesday. They blamed it on political pressure from the left and immediately vowed to appeal.

"It's a travesty," said Peloza, who lives in Dana Point. "The decision was 3-0 in my favor two months ago and now after obvious political lobbying, it has been reversed."

Meanwhile, the American Center for Law and Justice in Virginia has taken on Peloza's case.

"We are not going to let this case just sit," said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the center, which promotes "pro-liberty, pro-life and pro-family" causes, according to its motto. "There is no doubt there will be a petition for a rehearing. We'll go all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary."

On the opposing front, the ruling was widely applauded by education officials who expressed hope that it would finally lay the matter to rest.

"We're very pleased that this brings some finality to a situation that has been out there in limbo for a period of time," said David C. Larsen, the school district's attorney in the case.

Capistrano Unified Supt. James A. Fleming said: "This was a case where you had a teacher who was proselytizing children toward his religious point of view. Many of us feel religion is the domain of the family, church or synagogue."

Fleming added that students in Peloza's biology classes would only be harmed by his refusal to teach the state curriculum.

"You have children who will be taking the SAT, hoping to get into Stanford, Harvard. . . . " Fleming said. "You can't just have a teacher unilaterally saying, 'I don't believe it, I'm not going to teach it.' "

The three-judge panel Tuesday did not address their earlier ruling in Peloza's favor.

In their written opinion, the judges called some of his arguments "patently frivolous." These included his contention that it is unconstitutional for the school district to require him to teach that higher life forms evolved from lower ones because that constitutes the teaching of a religion: atheism.

"The scientific theory that higher forms of life evolved from lower forms is not . . . a religious belief," the court stated. "Evolution and evolutionism define a biological concept . . . that has nothing to do with whether or not there is a divine creator."

In his suit, Peloza said he was not trying to convert students to his religious views but that he objected to the teaching of evolution as the only valid scientific theory.

Since filing the lawsuit, he has been stripped of his duties as a biology teacher and now teaches health science and physical education.

Times staff writer Jodi Wilgoren contributed to this report.

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