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Peloza v. Capistrano Unified School District (1994)

Evolution & Creationism: Is Evolution a Religion?

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Some of those who object to evolution for religious reasons also argue that evolution itself is a religion or, sometimes, that it is a part of secular humanism which itself is a religion. Therefore, they conclude, teaching evolution in public schools violates the Establishment Clause (because it imposes a religion on students) and the Free Exercise Clause (in particular, of the teachers who are forced to teach it). But are such arguments valid? Is evolution a religion?

Background Information

High school biology teacher John E. Peloza brought action against the Capistrano School District, claiming that the school district's requirement that he teach "evolutionism," as well as a school district order barring him from discussing his religious beliefs with students, were infringements both on his rights to free speech and his rights to free exercise of religion.

According to Peloza, "evolutionism" is a religion and therefore being forced to teach it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In Peloza's view, Evolutionism is an historical, philosophical and religious belief system, but not a valid scientific theory. Evolutionism is one of "two world views on the subject of the origins of life and of the universe." The other is "creationism" which also is a "religious belief system."

The belief system of evolutionism is based on the assumption that life and the universe evolved randomly and by chance and with no Creator involved in the process. The world view and belief system of creationism is based on the assumption that a Creator created all life and the entire universe.

Peloza also claimed that the district conspired to destroy and damage his professional reputation, career and position as a public school teacher. He had been reprimanded in writing for proselytizing to students and teaching religion in the classroom - according to him, they did this because they were hostile towards practicing Christians.

A District Court had dismissed the suit and awarded attorney fees to the school district, but Peloza appealed.

Court Decision

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals completely rejected all of Peloza's arguments. First, they noted that his claims were not entirely consistent - in some places he claimed 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, but at other times he claimed the district was forcing him to teach evolution as fact.

The Court also noted what just about every creationist seems to miss: the fact that evolution is about how life has developed and has nothing to do with the origins or development of the universe itself. Peloza's complaint assumed this latter description to be true - and since it was not, an important foundation to his complaint was lost. In essence, his allegation that he was forced to teach a religion was found to be false:

We reject this claim because neither the Supreme Court, nor this circuit, has ever held that evolutionism or secular humanism are "religions" for Establishment Clause purposes. Indeed, both the dictionary definition of religion and the clear weight of the case law are to the contrary. 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.

Peloza would have us accept his definition of "evolution" and "evolutionism" and impose his definition on the school district as its own, a definition that cannot be found in the dictionary, in the Supreme Court cases, or anywhere in the common understanding of the words. Only if we define "evolution" and "evolutionism" as does Peloza as a concept that embraces the belief that the universe came into existence without a Creator might he make out a claim. This we need not do. To say red is green or black is white does not make it so.

Thus, the Ninth Circuit Court agreed completely with the findings of the district court.

They also rejected his Free Speech allegations. Although it is true that the restrictions placed upon him restricted his free speech, the court noted that:

While at the high school, whether he is in the classroom or outside of it 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. Such speech would not have a secular purpose, would have the primary effect of advancing religion, and would entangle the school with religion. In sum, it would flunk all three parts of the test articulated in Lemon v. Kurtzman.

This comment is very important well beyond the subject of creationism and evolution - it explains why employees of the state are restricted in what they can say and what they can do while going about the duties of their job or office.


In the first place, this ruling helped establish the fact that evolution is not a religion and is not a world view - it is, instead, a scientific theory. Moreover, the court agreed with scientists who say that evolution is about the development of life rather than with creationists who attempt to redefine evolution as involving the origins of the universe.

Finally, the decision also helps explain why state employees and elected office holders can indeed have their free speech rights restricted while they are performing duties for the government. In representing the government rather than simply themselves, it is important that they not cross the line and do things which are not permitted to the government.

Further Information

Evolution & Creationism...
Is evolution a science? Is creationism a science? What is science? Is there evidence for either? Religious fundamentalists often attack evolution, but rarely from a positions of really understanding what evolution is and how it works. This FAQ will not only teach you more about the nature of evolution and evolutionary theory, but it will also explain some of the more common complaints and where they go wrong.

Back To: Court Decisions on Religious Liberty (main page)

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