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Peloza vs. Capistrano Unified School District

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The Peloza vs. Capistrano Unified School District case involved John E. Peloza, a high school biology teacher. In 1994, Peloza sued California's Capistrano Unified School District and various personnel associated with it. He alleged that the school district wanted him to teach the religious belief of evolutionism as fact, with which he did not agree. He said this violated his rights under

  1. The Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment
  2. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment
  3. The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment
  4. The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Peloza claimed the defendants conspired to violate his constitutional rights, and tried to force him to teach evolutionism by harassing and intimidating him. He said they intentionally inflicted emotional distress on him because of their hostility toward practicing Christians.

The district court dismissed Peloza's claims and said the action was frivolous. It ordered Peloza and his attorney to pay $32,000 to the defendants for their attorney fees and costs. Peloza appealed against the district court's ruling. The Court of Appeals upheld most of the district court's findings, with dissent from one of the judges on the matter of free speech. But the appeals court reversed the district court's award of attorney fees and costs to the defendants.

Peloza v. Capistrano Unified School District
U.S. Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit
Nos. 92-55228, 92-55644.
United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit.
Argued and Submitted June 9, 1993. Filed July 25, 1994.
Opinion Withdrawn September 20, 1994. Decided October 4, 1994.

Court of Appeals' findings

On the Establishment Clause

The court said Peloza failed to specify in his claim where his rights had been violated under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. It said his claims were also not consistent. "In some places he seems to advance the patently frivolous claim that it is unconstitutional for the school district to require him to teach, as a valid scientific theory, that higher life forms evolved from lower ones. At other times he claims the district is forcing him to teach evolution as fact. Although possibly dogmatic or even wrong, such a requirement would not transgress the Establishment Clause if 'evolution' simply means that higher life forms evolved from lower ones."

After consulting dictionaries for definitions of the word "evolution," the court held that evolution "has nothing to do with how the universe was created. It has nothing to do with whether or not there is a divine Creator (who did or did not create the universe or did or did not plan evolution as part of a divine scheme)."

On free speech

The court said the school district's restriction of Peloza's right of free speech was justified in forbidding him from talking with students about religion during school-time (including times when he was not teaching class).

Peloza claimed the school district inhibited his right to talk about religion in his free time, because it defined "instructional time" as any time the students were on campus, including lunch-breaks and the time before, between, and after classes. He said this definition was too broad.

The court disagreed. It said: {{cquoteYou are hereby directed to refrain from any attempt to convert students to Christianity or initiating conversations about your religious beliefs during instructional time, which the district believes includes any time students are required to be on campus as well as the time students immediately arrive for the purposes of attending school for instruction, lunch time, and the time immediately prior to students' departure after the instructional day.}}

The court held that while Peloza was at the school, whether in the classroom or outside during contract time;

Peloza is not just any ordinary citizen. He is a teacher. He is one of those especially respected persons chosen to teach in the high school's classroom. He is clothed with the mantle of one who imparts knowledge and wisdom. His expressions of opinion are all the more believable because he is a teacher. The likelihood of high school students equating his views with those of the school is substantial. To permit him to discuss his religious beliefs with students during school time on school grounds would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

On due process

The court said the teacher's claim that defamatory statements made to and about him had damaged his reputation were not enough to support his claim of deprivation of liberty. Peloza had alleged that this was "state action" that violated his right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment.

The court held that Peloza's allegations of injury to his reputation were inadequate to support his claim for deprivation of a liberty interest.

On frivolous complaints

Despite these findings, the court disagreed with the district court's contention that Peloza's complaint was frivolous. It said:

Some of the issues he raises present important questions of first impression in this circuit. His free speech claim involves substantial questions and requires the balancing of rights of free speech against the Establishment Clause.

It therefore reversed the district court's award of attorney fees and costs to the defendants, and ruled that the parties bear their own costs.

Further comments

A problem in the Peloza case was that the judges could not find Peloza's definition of evolution and evolutionism in the dictionary. The court said Peloza's definition was that evolution was "a concept that embraces the belief that the universe came into existence without a Creator." It could not find this definition in a dictionary or in the common understanding of the word. It said evolution therefore was not a religion, but a scientific theory.

One of the three Court of Appeals judges, Circuit Judge Poole, dissented from the opinion of the other two judges (Fletcher and Thompson) on free speech. Judge Poole believed that if a teacher were totally prevented from discussing religion during the school-day, his or her right to free speech would be violated. In his dissenting opinion, Judge Poole said:

I can imagine a wide range of circumstances and questions 'regarding religion' which Peloza could permissibly answer without violating the Establishment Clause. For example, a student might come to a teacher during lunch and ask about Malcolm X or Martin Luther King's religious beliefs, and how and why they evolved, or about the origins of Islam, or what the seven great religions of the world were. Such questions would certainly be 'regarding religion, student-initiated, and during contract time.' As such, they fall within the class of discussions Peloza seeks to be permitted.

Judge Poole strongly disagreed with the opinion of the other two judges over this. He said;

The majority errs in presuming to know that what is at stake here is Peloza's right to 'discuss his religious beliefs' with students. In doing so, it ignores the fact that this is a Rule 12(b)(6) case. More generally, it gives short shrift to the possibility that we may well be limiting free speech more broadly than the state's compelling interest in avoiding an establishment of religion would warrant.

Related References

See also