In a clash that pits Catholic teachings against shifting values of American society, a group of parishioners and parents has accused Orange County church leaders of defying Pope John Paul II by allowing a gay couple to enroll their two boys in a diocese school.
Eighteen people signed a letter last month demanding that St. John the Baptist School in Costa Mesa accept only families that sign a pledge to live by Catholic doctrine -- a move that effectively would kick the boys out of school. The church regards homosexual acts as sinful, and in 2003 the pontiff condemned marriage and adoption by same-sex couples.
"This is not a radical or mean-spirited approach to Catholic education," read the letter. "It is a straightforward assurance to any prospective parent that their child will be taught the fullness of Roman Catholic doctrine."
But Father Martin Benzoni, who oversees the 550-student elementary and middle school, last week rejected the group's demands. He released a new policy stating that a child's education comes first and that a family's background "does not constitute an absolute obstacle to enrollment in the school."
Benzoni acknowledged the conflict between the two-father family and the teachings of the church, but said that the boys -- both kindergarteners, adopted by a pair of Costa Mesa men -- had been baptized in the faith and deserved a Catholic education.
"I firmly believe that this policy is in line with the teaching of the Catholic Church," said Benzoni, who is a member of the conservative Norbertine order that runs the school and parish for the diocese.
Dismayed by the decision, some parents said they plan to ask the Vatican for help, while others said they may pull their children from the school.
"The teachings of the church seem to have been abandoned," said parent John R. Nixon. "We send our children to a Catholic school ... because we expect and demand that the teachings of our church will be
The leader of one conservative Catholic organization agreed, contending that unless the boys leave, the school must either fail to teach Catholic marriage values or subject the brothers to humiliation.
"There's no way those kids cannot be hurt in a Catholic school if that school teaches the faith," said Stephen G. Brady, president of the Roman Catholic Faithful, based in Illinois.
"Is the church going to teach them that their parents are going to hell for the lifestyle they are living?"
But several other conservative and liberal Catholic leaders backed the school, saying that regardless of the church's views on homosexuality and same-sex unions, it would be wrong to punish the children.
"To single out these kids because of their gay parents would be invidious," said William Donohue, president of the conservative Catholic League. "You cannot burden the innocent."
The fathers of the two boys declined to be interviewed.
Parents said they have grown increasingly upset since the men enrolled their children at the start of this school year. Anger built as the two men were both listed as fathers in the school directory and one volunteered as a teacher's aide in class.
The protesting parents said that the school is violating a church teaching on same-sex unions released by Pope John Paul II in 2003.
The pontiff encouraged Catholics to vigorously protest domestic partnerships and, "above all, to avoid exposing young people to erroneous ideas about sexuality and marriage that would deprive them of their necessary defenses and contribute to the spread of the phenomenon."
They also say the school is sacrificing the religious education of other children in the boys' class.
"If I was a teacher in that classroom, I would not say anything to make those children question their caregivers," said Paul Krieger, whose daughter attends St. John the Baptist. "Which means I would not be teaching the faith. I would be kind to two children and relinquish my duties to the other 30 in the classroom."
Krieger and others also voiced concern that by allowing the two boys to remain at the school, church and school officials are setting a precedent that could eventually lead to liberalization of the church's teachings on sexuality.
Many of the angry parents portrayed the debate as part of a broader campaign by gay and lesbian Catholics to gain greater acceptance within the church. "The boys are being used as pawns by these men to [further] their agenda," said Monica Sii, who has four children at St. John's.
Michael Joseph Sundstedt, a Newport Beach attorney advising the group of parents, said they want families enrolling their children in St. John the Baptist to sign a "parental moral covenant" agreeing to abide by Catholic teachings. While unusual in Catholic schools, similar declarations are required by many Protestant Christian schools.
The two fathers might sign the declaration even though they could not abide by it -- "that's between them and their maker," Sundstedt said. "But I strongly suspect that those parents wouldn't sign the agreement."