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To the mat: Parents to appeal ruling allowing yoga in public schools

A San Diego judge ruled that teaching yoga in Encinitas, Calif., public schools does not violate First Amendment protections against religious indoctrination. The attorney for the parents says there are several avenues for appeal.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer / July 3, 2013

Yoga instructor Kristen McCloskey (r.) leads a class of third-graders at Olivenhain Pioneer Elementary School in Encinitas, Calif., in this Dec. 11, 2012, photo. A San Diego County judge ruled on Monday that the Encinitas Union School District was not teaching religion by providing yoga classes.

Gregory Bull/AP/File

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LOS ANGELES

A ruling by a San Diego County Superior Court judge that teaching yoga in the schools does not violate the First Amendment's separation of church and state has riled the parents who brought the suit, who now plan to appeal.

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In the San Diego area case, a couple with two children in the Encinitas Union School District filed suit to have the yoga instruction stopped, saying it violates state law prohibiting the teaching of religion in public schools. Students attend two, 30-minute yoga classes each week in a program supported by a $533,000 grant from the Jois Foundation, a nonprofit group based in Encinitas, Calif., that promotes Ashtanga yoga.

In his ruling, made without a jury, Judge John Meyer said the yoga practice does not advance or inhibit religion, and that the Encinitas school district had taken several steps to distance its program from the Hindu religion upon which Ashtanga yoga is based, eliminating cultural references, such as the Sanskrit language, and renaming the lotus position the "crisscross applesauce pose."

But the attorney for the Encinitas parents says that teaching yoga in a public school violates constitutional protections, period.

“Ashtanga yoga is the most religious form of yoga practiced in the US, and that is not my opinion but that of religious scholars,” says Dean Broyles, president and attorney for the Escondido-based National Center for Law and Policy, who represented the couple, Stephen and Jennifer Sedlock.

"If it is religious – and even the judge himself admitted that from the bench – why is there not a constitutional problem with that?" he added. "It’s an interesting legal proposition to me that he thinks he is theologically qualified to determine whether or not enough religion has been stripped out of Ashtanga yoga to make it secular.”

The judge acknowledged that he does have some concerns about the K.P. Jois Foundation, an organization launched in 2011 that provided seed money for the school district's program, but wrote that those concerns do not extend to excessive government entanglement with religion. That's because it is the schools, not the foundation, that are responsible for supervising the yoga instructors.

Plaintiffs and detractors of the yoga classes were relying on information taken from the Internet and other unreliable sources, he added, in a two-hour explanation of his ruling.

“It's almost like a trial by Wikipedia, which isn't what this court does,” he said.

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