San Diego Judge Rules Yoga Is Not Religious, Rejects Suit To Ban It In Public Schools

on July 02 2013 6:54 PM
People practice yoga on the morning of the summer solstice in New York's Times Square June 21, 2010. The eighth annual "Solstice in Times Square" event on Monday brought out thousands of participants to celebrate the year's longest day
A San Diego judge ruled that yoga as it is taught in local public schools is not religious. Reuters

A San Diego judge ruled Monday that the Encinitas Union School District was within its legal rights to teach yoga to its students. San Diego Superior Court Judge John S. Meyer rejected the claims of parents who described the yoga as a way to proselytize Eastern religion.

"Yoga as it has developed in the last 20 years is rooted in American culture, not Indian culture," Meyer said. "It is a distinctly American cultural phenomenon. A reasonable student would not objectively perceive that Encinitas School District yoga advances or promotes religion."

Meyer also said opponents of the practice had not gotten their information scholarly sources, and had relied on the Internet. "It's almost like a trial by Wikipedia, which isn't what this court does," he said.

Dean Broyles, the head of the National Center on Law and Policy and the attorney for the plaintiffs, said that they would probably appeal the decision. Broyles previously described the issue as a matter of separation of church and state.

“As a First Amendment lawyer, I wouldn’t go after an exercise program. I don’t go after people for stretching,” Broyles said. “But ashtanga yoga is a religious-based yoga, and if we are separating church and state, we can’t pick and choose religious favorites.”

According to the Associated Press, Meyer ruled that although yoga is a religious practice, it was not being taught in a religious way at nine Encinitas schools. In his defense of yoga as a secular physical activity, Meyer said the district had removed cultural references from its exercises and renamed positions like “lotus” as “crisscross applesauce.”

The parents of Encinitas students who filed the law suit objected to using “Namaste” as a greeting during the program, and argued that many of the poses were religious in nature because they represented Hindu deities. The plaintiffs did not seek monetary damages, but asked that the courts order the school district to suspend the program.

The California school district is reportedly the first in the nation to employ full-time yoga teachers at all of its schools. As part of their regular fitness program, Encinitas teachers conduct 30-minute classes in yoga. The program is currently funded by a $533,000 grant from the Jois Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes health and wellness through ashtanga yoga.

Timothy B. Baird, the district superintendent, said the new fitness program has already had benefits for students.  "We're not teaching religion," he said. "We teach a very mainstream physical fitness program that happens to incorporate yoga into it."

Baird added that since the program’s start, teachers and parents have noted that students have been employing breathing practices before tests and have become notably calmer.

Dave Peck, an Encinitas parent, told Reuters that he believed the lawsuit was “a tortured attempt to find indoctrination where none exists.”

“There is really no dispute as to the physical and mental health benefits of the yoga program — teachers and parents throughout the district have raved about noticeable improvement in the students’ focus,” Peck said. There is absolutely nothing religious or spiritual about the classroom instruction.”

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