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Peloza v. Capistrano Independent Unified School District: Evolution May Be Taught Even if it Conflicts With Religious Beliefs

Peloza v. Capistrano Independent Unified School District is a well-known case from the 9th Circuit in 1994 where a federal court of appeals found that it is legal to teach evolution even if a teacher feels it conflicts with his religious beliefs. While the court was correct to hold that it is perfectly legal to require that evolution be part of the curriculum, unfortunately they expressed no sympathy whatsoever for the millions of Americans who feel that teaching evolution is not religiously neutral.

1. Summary

In Peloza v. Capistrano, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a teacher can be ordered to teach evolution, even if the theory conflicts with his or her religious beliefs.93 John Peloza, a high school biology teacher, brought an action against the Capistrano Unified School District challenging its requirement that he must teach evolution.94 According to Peloza, "Evolutionism is an historical, philosophical and religious belief system, but not a valid scientific theory . . . evolutionism is based on the assumption that life and the universe evolved randomly and by chance and with no Creator involved in the process."95 He claimed that the school district was forcing him to "proselytize his students to a belief in evolutionism 'under the guise of [its being] a valid scientific theory.'"96 The court rejected this argument, stating 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."97

2. Importance and Commentary

According to Peloza, a teacher can be forced to teach evolution even if it conflicts with his or her religious beliefs.98 Like other cases, Peloza cites to the 1987 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Edwards v. Aguillard to justify its claim that teaching creationism is unconstitutional.99 Yet Peloza also represents another case that rejects the claim that evolution is a religious belief system, as it implies that pro-evolution-only policies do not raise establishment concerns because it defines evolution, as "simply . . . that higher life forms evolved from lower ones."100 Under such logic, teaching scientific evidence that holds that higher life forms did not evolve from lower ones should be similarly permissible, as it constitutes mere scientific critique of a scientific viewpoint.

While the Peloza court was correct to state that evolution is based upon a scientific methodology, it dismissively swept aside Mr. Peloza's claims that the propositions of evolution conflict with his religious beliefs. The Peloza court thus failed to heed Justice Black's warning that constitutional analysis should not ignore the "troublesome" religious implications that evolution may have for many Americans.101 In Justice Black's words, the Peloza court "write[s] off as pure nonsense the views of those who consider evolution an anti-religious doctrine."102 Given that at least one prominent mainstream biology textbook has said that "Darwin knew that accepting his theory required believing in philosophical materialism, the conviction that matter is the stuff of all existence and that all mental and spiritual phenomena are its by-products,"103 courts should be sensitive to the religious views of citizens regarding evolution. By failing to recognize the anti-religious implications evolution has for many Americans, courts such as the Peloza court continue to inflame community division and strife over the teaching of evolution. Nonetheless, Peloza represents another case standing for the proposition that evolution may be taught even when it purportedly conflicts with the religious beliefs of educators.

[Editor's Note: This survey of Peloza v. Capistrano Unified Sch. Dist. is an excerpt from the article "Does Challenging Darwin Create Constitutional Jeopardy? A Comprehensive Survey of Case Law Regarding the Teaching of Biological Origins," Hamline University Law Review, Vol. 32(1):1-64 (Winter, 2009), published by Hamline University School of Law. This excerpt covers the case Peloza v. Capistrano Unified Sch. Dist.; the full article can be read here.]

Refrences Cited
[93.] Peloza v. Capistrano Unified Sch. Dist., 37 F.3d 517 (9th Cir. 1994), cert. denied, 515 U.S. 1173 (1995).d. at 522-23.
[94.] Id. at 519.
[95.] Id.
[96.] Id. (alteration in original).
[97.] Id. at 521 (emphasis omitted).
[98.] Peloza, 37 F.3d at 522-23.
[99.] Id.. at 521 ("The Supreme Court has held unequivocally that while the belief in a divine creator of the universe is a religious belief, the scientific theory that higher forms of life evolved from lower forms is not.").
[100.] Id. at 520.
[101.] Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97, 113 (Black, J., concurring).
[102.] Id.
[103.] Joseph S. Levine & Kenneth R. Miller, Biology: Discovering Life 161 (2d ed. 1994).