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They Say Love Conquers All--Will It Now? : They’re married. But she’s still in high school and the Catholic Church isn’t happy.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Stage Left features Gloria Allred, the media-savvy attorney who took her young, pro bono clients all the way to the high court of national television.

Stage Right belongs to Father Gregory Coiro, the sober, robed spokesman who rushed to television, radio and print to defend the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Then there’s the star couple themselves:

Jennifer, 17, and Caesar Espinoza, 25, share a full-size bed, a kitten named Psycho Sam and a Sin City marriage certificate. Because of Jennifer’s Las Vegas marriage April 2, the archdiocese decided it will no longer share a high school education with her.

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At issue is whether the would-be senior has a right to get married outside the church without being banished by her Catholic school--Alemany High in Mission Hills. Or, as the church sees it, whether the largest archdiocese in the nation has the right to establish and enforce guidelines for religious education.

The question of who’s right could have far-reaching implications. Due process, freedom of association, cries one camp. Freedom of religion, yells the other.

Under an informal agreement between Allred and Coiro, the school will welcome Jennifer back if the couple marries in a Catholic church. The church doesn’t normally marry those under 19, so a priest must decide if Jennifer is ready. If she’s not, she’s back on the outside.

As Jennifer’s senior year approaches, her hope is fading. She faces several more consultations with a priest before a decision is made. Alemany’s school year begins Sept. 1.

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“It’s starting to get frustrating,” Jennifer says.

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Jennifer and Caesar aren’t exactly birds of a feather. She likes rap. He likes rock. She’s into the Chicago Bulls. He obsesses over professional wrestling. (He has a shirt he proudly swears was ripped by Hulk Hogan).

She’s fair and round and talks cute through a tight-lipped smile. He’s dark and skinny and speaks faster than his lips seem able to handle. Around strangers they don’t kiss or hug, and rarely touch.

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But they’re both Catholic. She’s a fan of Mass. He’s a former altar boy and an Alemany grad. She calls him “the one I love.” He says he’ll do anything and go anywhere for her. “If she wants to move to Iowa, then I’m a farmer,” says Caesar, a bank employee.

Jennifer was scorekeeper and Caesar a coach for a Kiwanis youth-baseball league in Sunland when they met in May, 1993. He wooed her with “corny lines,” Jennifer recalls. “He used to say to his cousin, ‘Isn’t it a shame we only get to see her twice a week.’ ”

Jennifer’s parents, Mary and Joe Levis, fumed when they found out that a 24-year-old was after their daughter, barely 16 at the time.

“We confronted him and said knock this off,” says Joe Levis, her stepfather, an electrical-supply shop owner. The blossoming romance--which included long telephone calls and late-night dates--helped sour Jennifer’s home life in Lake View Terrace, her parents say.

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Mary Levis says she gave in and told Jennifer that she could move out “if you come back with a marriage license.” She later gave consent for the under-age marriage. “It was a long, hard struggle with the girl, and that was a way out of it,” she says.

(“I give Caesar and Jennifer full support,” says Leo Espinoza, Caesar’s dad.)

Jennifer and Caesar say they tried to contact a few Catholic churches early this year but were shut out because of Jennifer’s age. They say that’s what led them to go the civil ceremony route that now puts Jennifer’s education on hold. “It seems like a real Catch-22,” Allred says.

Her parents say Jennifer never intended to get a Catholic wedding. Jennifer didn’t want to wait through the months it usually takes to get church approval for an under-age wedding, the Levises say.

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“My parents have a tendency . . . not to tell the truth,” counters Jennifer.

Coiro says area priests were never contacted by Jennifer and Caesar. “Something,” he says, “doesn’t add up.”

After the April wedding, Jennifer moved into Caesar’s Van Nuys apartment. Jennifer told a few friends about it, and the school administration found out. Alemany officials weren’t sure what to do, so the archdiocese checked it out.

The ruling came in May: Archdiocese schools must exclude Catholic students who get married outside the church. “It’s totally ludicrous to teach the sanctimony of the sacrament of matrimony and then have a Catholic young person thumbing her nose at the sacrament,” says Coiro, a big, ruddy-faced man with a serious gaze.

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Even those who get married inside the system can be kicked out, according to archdiocese rules. The schools shouldn’t have to deal with students who aren’t under the control of their parents, Coiro says.

The administration told Jennifer she could finish her junior year, take the necessary senior courses elsewhere and return to graduate with her class next spring.

Jennifer refused, opting instead to get an attorney. “I want to be able to say I fought for something,” she says.

Attorneys’ referrals led to Allred, who took the case before the media. Within weeks, Jennifer’s story was on the nationally syndicated “Sally Jessy Raphael” TV show.

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Allred’s battle centers around Alemany’s student handbook. In it are rules banning drugs, theft, arson, extortion, weapons-wielding, gang activity and graffiti. But nowhere does it say you can’t have a wedding--sacramental or shotgun. “Jennifer should at least have notice of the rule,” Allred says.

Allred maintains that all she wants is to get Jennifer back in school.

Good thing, experts say, because she might not have a lot of luck if she decides to head to court. “Generally,” says Loyola Law School professor Kurt Lash, “private schools can control conditions of membership.”

“What we have,” Coiro argues, “is an intrusion into the affairs of the Catholic Church.”

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He says the student handbook defers all power to a higher source--the archdiocese “administrative handbook,” where there are indeed rules governing student marriage.

But there’s more to the story than handbooks.

Allred is quick to point out that Alemany has open arms for unwed mothers. “It seems unfair and ironic that the school would allow unwed mothers to continue attending classes there but not a dedicated student who enters into a civil marriage and who is not pregnant,” she says, noting that Jennifer is a B student.

“We endorse a girl’s decision to have a baby rather than going to the nearest Planned Parenthood so her baby could be murdered,” Coiro counters.

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The sideshow nature of the debate peaked during the “Sally Jessy Raphael” broadcast June 23. Jennifer and Caesar sat quietly some of the time as insults were hurled across the stage. A suited audience member called Allred “a media exhibitionist.” An anti-abortion activist compared Jennifer’s attitude to eating a ham sandwich in a Jewish school and demanding to get away with it. Even Coiro, usually above the fray, called Allred, “not a very good attorney.”

During another on-air clash, Allred and Coiro struck a deal: “The administration at Alemany decided that if the church blessed the marriage, Jennifer would be allowed to continue at Alemany,” Coiro says.

Some archdiocese high schools, meanwhile, are considering whether to address marriage in their student handbooks.

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Jennifer and Caesar live in one of those stucco apartment buildings with the perpetual for-rent sign and developer’s flags that constantly whip in the wind.

Caesar works weekdays and Jennifer labors weekends as a hostess at a Denny’s. They spend evenings planted in a spongy green couch playing video games, betting quarters on cards or watching “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” on a 25-inch TV.

As they wait for a priest to come judge their lives, neither seems particularly enthusiastic about the telling weeks ahead. If the priest says yes, Jennifer can attend class while premarital counseling forges ahead. And the press will likely be there.

“The publicity gets in the way,” Jennifer says. “But without it, we wouldn’t have gotten as far as we have.”

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She’s hung up on school because “you can do everything senior year,” she says, citing the prom, grad night and casual-dress days. The campus seems to support her. (“Let her come back,” one Alemany staff member says.)

Jennifer does have a Plan B, however: to attend a community college, pass a high school equivalency test, and forgo the school’s offer to have her come graduate with her class. “I would rather save the embarrassment,” she says.

There’s no talk of kids yet. She wants to go on to college. Loyola Marymount University, a Catholic school, is her top choice.

And then?

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“Be a rich lawyer,” she says. “To see Gloria do it makes me want to do it more.”


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