Last winter, the parents of a Jewish student at Capistrano Valley High School complained to school officials that a biology teacher had told their daughter that people who don't believe in Jesus Christ "are going to hell."
In a separate incident a few weeks later, another parent reported that the same teacher had given her daughter a Bible after class.
Acting on these complaints that teacher John Peloza was trying to convert students to his own Christian beliefs, school officials gave the teacher a reprimand--a serious disciplinary action one step away from suspension.
The written reprimand also instructed Peloza to stop teaching his students that man was put on earth by an intelligent creator, and instead to follow district guidelines requiring that evolution be taught as the scientific explanation of the origin of man.
But Peloza, a devout Christian who contends that school administrators are trying to force him to teach the "religion of atheism," has refused to back down. The instructor, who was runner-up for teacher of the year for the 1990-91 academic year at Capistrano Valley High, filed a grievance three months ago charging that his academic freedoms had been violated and demanding that school officials rescind their reprimand.
Peloza admits that he has given Bibles to students after class, but denies that he teaches his religious beliefs in the classroom. He says that when students ask him philosophical questions he responds, and that some of his answers "are biblical."
The dispute has opened a Pandora's box at Capistrano Valley High, splitting the student body along religious lines and spilling over into the surrounding community of Mission Viejo.
Peloza has found a loyal following, and in recent months has emerged as a symbol of hope for Christian fundamentalists who trace many of today's societal ills to the 1963 Supreme Court decision banning prayer in public schools.
That ruling, Peloza and others argue, effectively relegated God to the church, opening the door to a scourge of secular evils ranging from premarital sex to drug abuse.
"It's the perfect case of Scopes in reverse," said Benjamin Hubbard, a religion professor at Cal State Fullerton, referring to the 1925 trial of John T. Scopes, a Tennessee high school teacher who was convicted of violating a state law that made it illegal to teach the theory of evolution.
Peloza "has become the new hero because people see this issue as one of God versus the evils of secular humanity," Hubbard said.
In recent months, Peloza has appeared as a guest on half a dozen Christian radio talk shows, including a station in Durham, N.C. He has been invited to speak to a dozen organizations ranging from Christian Science groups to various youth gatherings. Peloza, who has taught at Capistrano Valley High for seven years, has not shied away from the opportunity to promote his cause.
But according to school officials, Peloza's popularity within the community does not legitimize his cause.
Two years ago, over the heated objections of fundamentalists, the State Board of Education passed a policy stating that evolution should be taught as the only scientific theory explaining the origin of life.
Although local districts are not required to adhere to state guidelines, most, such as Capistrano Unified, do.
"The policy is quite clear on this," said Tom Sachse, who heads the math and science section for the State Department of Education. "We don't talk about the Jewish, Zen, Buddhist or other faiths, so it is not right for us to treat one small segment of Christian religions."
John Stewart, a Christian radio talk show host in Los Angeles who interviewed Peloza recently, describes the case as a kind of modern-day version of David versus Goliath.
"Here you have big (State Supt. of Public Instruction) Bill Honig mandating that evolution be taught and then you have Peloza, who, because he views things through the spectacle of his Christian faith, wants the students to see both sides," Stewart said. "A lot of people believe in pulling for the underdog."
In fact, Peloza's popularity has put his critics on the defensive.
Emily Long, a 17-year-old senior who criticized Peloza's teaching methods in an article that appeared in March in the Capistrano Valley High School student newspaper Paw Prints, said students are intimidated by him.
In her article, which ran beneath an editorial by Peloza defending his position, Long quoted an anonymous student who said she feared her grade would drop in Peloza's class because she was a different religion from the teacher.
"Mr. Peloza feels that he is right by what he preaches," Long quoted the student as saying. "But it's wrong to tell your students or people who look up to you that you should only believe in one way, and that his is the right way when the students are in their vulnerable state of life."
As a result of her article, Long said, Peloza has threatened to sue the Paw Prints faculty adviser and the student newspaper itself. Meanwhile, she says, she has been called an atheist and shunned by some of her fellow students.
"It is a little frightening," she said. "A lot of people are angry at me. I can feel it."
A group of her fellow students calling themselves "Good Christian Cougars" have scattered notices on campus asking students to rally and support Peloza. Last month, a group of Christian parents, armed with a petition bearing 2,000 signatures, demanded that the school board reconsider the disciplinary measure against Peloza.
"This is a country that was founded on Christian principles, and it's gotten to the point where you can't even mention God at all," said Pat Spence, whose 15-year-old son Blake is a 10th-grader in Peloza's class. "I wonder when we're going to get to the point where we have to take 'In God We Trust' off our currency."
"I am absolutely confounded by all of this," Spence said. "Every time I see those two little Boy Scouts in Anaheim trying to turn the Boy Scout world upside down because they don't want to say God , I want to throw up," she said. She alluded to a case in which twin 9-year-olds are suing for the right to remain in their Cub Scout pack after being expelled for refusing to repeat the word God in the Cub Scout oath.
Chuck Smith Jr., pastor at Calvary Chapel in Capistrano Beach where Peloza is a member, said he is not surprised by the interest that his parishioner's case has generated.
"People are frustrated with the problems in South Orange County," Smith said. "Then they see a situation where someone has strong moral values and a moral basis, and they are being censored instead of being helped."
Peloza, 36, describes himself as an "average person." He is the father of two young daughters and lives in Dana Point with his wife, Debbie.
A lanky man whose physique reflects his years playing basketball at Humboldt State University, where he majored in physical education, Peloza was the only one of six children in his family to finish college. Later, he said, he went on to Cal State Long Beach where he obtained a master's degree in education.
Raised in a Catholic family in Fort Bragg, Calif., where his father worked in a lumber mill, Peloza said he diverged into his own Christian beliefs and found Christ at age 15. He landed his first job out of college teaching high school on Santa Catalina Island, where he remained for four years. From there he transferred to Capistrano Valley High where, he says, he had taught without problems until recently.
Peloza dismisses charges that he has used his classroom as a pulpit to promote his own religious beliefs.
Instead, he maintains that he encourages critical thinking by presenting both the theory that man was created by a designer, and the competing notion that chance resulted in the spontaneous generation of organic compounds that gradually evolved into man.
But when he discusses the latter theory, he said, he exposes a flaw in evolutionist thinking--that no one can prove the spontaneous appearance of life and the process has never been observed. Consequently, he argues, the evidence supporting the evolutionist theory is circumstantial and the competing theory should also be taught.
"Their idea of creationism is that I'm teaching from the Book of Genesis. I don't do that in my biology classes," Peloza said. "What I'm doing is, I'm resisting pressure to teach evolutionism, which is the religion of atheism. I cannot teach my students without refutation that they evolved from lower life forms."
He said he has given Bibles to students who approach him with questions about his religious beliefs. However, he said, he does not share his religious views during class hours.
"If a student comes to me and asks me questions about important things, about eternity and philosophical questions, I do my best to answer them," Peloza said. "The basis of my answers are biblical, and I'm not ashamed of that. But I'm not banging them over the head with the Bible."
School administrators and district officials refused to disclose the names of the parents who complained about Peloza or to provide details of their complaints. However, according to Peloza, the reprimand resulted from complaints by the parents of two Jewish students last winter.
In the first incident, Peloza said, a boy and a girl came to his classroom during lunch and asked him questions about the Bible. Later, he said, school officials told him that the parents of the female student had complained. Peloza said he had not known that the student was Jewish.
"She had been one of my students who dropped the class a week later because she was failing," Peloza said. "She later came up with wild accusations that I had said, 'If you don't believe in Jesus Christ, you are going to hell.' "
Peloza, who said he does not remember the details of the conversation, says the quotes were taken out of context.
". . . If someone asks me a question about the Bible and I'm able to answer it, I will," Peloza said. "But John Peloza doesn't say if you reject Jesus Christ you are going to hell, the Bible says you are."
In the second incident a few weeks later, Peloza said, he gave Bibles after class to two female students who had sought him out to discuss religious matters. That incident, he said, also led to a complaint from the parent of one of the students, who was Jewish.
School administrators say Peloza is out of line.
"Some people have a great deal of zeal and think God is on his (Peloza's) side and that district officials are standing in the way," Jerome R. Thornsley, Capistrano Valley Unified School District superintendent. "But we don't hire teachers to convert students to any faith."
Ric Stephenson, president of the teachers' union that is representing Peloza in his grievance against the district, says there are no winners in this situation.
"This shouldn't be a matter of teacher pitted against teacher, student pitted against teacher or even community versus community," he said. 'This distracts from the Christian message. The real message is hidden by infighting."