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.

Gregory Bull/AP/File
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.

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.

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.

On its website, the foundation describes its school curriculum as using "the techniques of yoga, meditation and proper nutrition to create a positive lifestyle change," adding: "It takes more than math and science to raise a human being."

Responding to Monday's decision, the Encinitas Union School District, which has full-time yoga teachers at each of its nine campuses, said in a statement: “We are pleased that the court ruled in our favor and look forward to continuing  to offer a comprehensive health and wellness program with yoga as one of its components.”

But Mr. Broyles says there is a double standard operating when priests and rabbis can be handed speaker guidelines on how to pray in a sectarian matter for public school graduations – as dictated by the US Supreme Court decision Lee v. Weisman (1992) – and yet let an overtly Hindu practice be taught in schools. He says he won’t divulge on what grounds his appeal will be based, but that “several are valid.”

“If this is opinion is not overturned, it will allow the precedent of allowing far-flung, obscure religions to prevail, while keeping out the ones we know well, simply because the judge thinks these 5- to 12-year-olds don’t recognize the religious teachings. The First Amendment says to me that all should be treated fairly and equally and that religious freedom is not for sale.”

Several constitutional scholars say any appeal faces an uphill battle because the basis of the ruling is a frequently tested US Supreme Court decision, McGowan v. Maryland (1961), that is clear: Laws with religious origins are not unconstitutional if they have a secular purpose. 

“Just because the Ten Commandments condemn murder and theft doesn’t make laws prohibiting murder a violation of church and state," says Jesse Choper, a constitutional scholar at the Boalt School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. "McGowan v. Maryland saved a lot of other religious-looking laws.”

In that case, he says, the court rejected a challenge to laws requiring that most large-scale commercial enterprises remain closed on Sundays. The court found that Sunday closing laws were originally efforts to promote church attendance. "But, despite the strongly religious origin of these laws, nonreligious arguments for Sunday closing began to be heard more distinctly," said the court.

Moreover, the San Diego case is not the first time a court has rejected a legal claim that teaching yoga in the public schools violates the First Amendment prohibition of the establishment of religion by government, says UC Berkeley law professor Stephen Sugarman. In Altmans v. Bedford Central School District (1996), plaintiffs challenged the teaching of meditation, yoga, and guided-imagery in the public school classrooms, alleging that such classes exposed their impressionable children to "New Age spirituality." That case found that plaintiffs failed to show that the activities were used in ways that were religious.

What is termed yoga can be delivered as a form of healthful exercise and breathing, in effect, as part of the physical education program, he says. "That is what the judge decided here." 

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