A California school district is going too far when it has public school students “bowing to the sun god” and participating in “liturgical/ritual religious practices” aimed at having them “become one with god,” according to a brief filed with an appeals court.
The National Center for Law and Policy is taking their fight over the Ashtanga yoga teachings of Encinitas Union School District to the Fourth District Court of Appeal in California after a district judge said the school program is religious, but officials can teach it anyway.
The Jois Foundation, also known as Somina, has partnered with the district “to develop an Ashtanga yoga program to replace traditional physical education,” according to the brief filed on behalf of students and parents in the district.
Among the founders was Sonia Tudor Jones, an ardent devotee of yoga who wanted to “spread the gospel of Ashtanga through the country and even internationally.” Jones worked on a plan for a three-year “scientific study” in the schools using the religious program.
When the lawsuit was heard, the trial court judge “acknowledged that, although not structured as a religious foundation per se, Jois/Sonima is ‘deeply involved in yoga and Ashtanga yoga’ and ‘has a mission to establish and teach Ashtanga yoga,’” the plaintiffs explained.
They have pointed out that the Ashtanga yoga supporters have “affirmed … explicit teaching that the mere ‘physical practice’ of the yoga … leads practitioners to ‘become one with god … whether they want it or not.’”
The appeals court is being asked to shut down the teaching.
“The Sonima Foundation is a religious organization with a religious agenda. They have the explicitly religious ‘outreach’ ‘mission’ of teaching Ashtanga yoga to children, which is based in Hindu religious beliefs and practices,” said NCLP Chief Counsel Dean Broyles.
He charged that by partnering with Sonima, the school district “has violated the First Amendment and has committed an egregious breach of the public trust.”
“I am appalled that Sonima is arrogantly pushing ahead with its national public school launch prematurely, before the three-year study is complete and before the appeal is decided,” he said. “This shows a callous disregard for religious freedom, parental rights, and the importance of objectively studying the program.”
He blasted the teachings.
“Leading young impressionable children with tender consciences through group liturgical/ritual religious practices including bowing to the sun god, practices that lead practitioners to ‘become one with god,’ is obviously religious,” he said.
“Jois, now deceptively rebranded as the Sonima Foundation, has purchased direct access to a captive audience of young and impressionable children by paying EUSD nearly $2 million to beta test its religious Ashtanga program on kids and jointly develop a religious yoga curriculum with the district,” said Broyles.
He asserted it’s not the job of government to pick religious winners and losers.
“We must not allow the cultural elites to decide by fiat which politically correct religions, such as Hinduism or Islam, are acceptable for the state to promote to our children with our taxpayer resources, and which religions, such as Christianity, are not acceptable,” he said. “Our children are not spiritual ‘guinea pigs’ and should never be subjected to such misguided religious experimentation by the state.”
The brief to the appeals court argues that the district “still today leads the children in constitutionally forbidden religious group exercises – ritual liturgical Ashtanga yoga practices, including the Surya Namaskara A/B involving worship of the Hindu Solar Diety Surya.”
As long as the district’s “health and wellness” program is called “yoga,” the brief said, the program label “will send a positive message about ‘yoga,’ a Sanskrit term widely understood to mean yoking with the divine.”
“Even if the yoga taught in EUSD classrooms had all ‘religion’ stripped from it, which is not the case, the EUSD yoga program still conveys a positive view of other forms of ‘yoga’ children might encounter and excessively entangles the district with religion by forcing it to monitor, supervise, and control the religious speech and conduct of the yoga teachers in the classroom and embodied in the yoga curriculum.”
The case was brought by parents of children in the district’s elementary school system. They alleged that teaching yoga in schools is an improper attempt at religious indoctrination.
San Diego Superior Court Judge John Meyer heard the case and declared in his July 1, 2013, decision that yoga, including the Ashtanga yoga taught at Encinitis, is religious. But the judge also said that the district did not violate the Establishment Causes of the U.S. and California constitutions by hiring yoga instructors to teach yoga to students during class hours.
“Meyer found that EUSD had somehow stripped enough religious content out of the program so that the hypothetical ‘reasonable observer’ student would not perceive that religion was being promoted,” the legal team explained.
After objections from the plaintiffs in the case, the judge revised his decision, concluding that the school’s yoga poses are identical to those taught by Ashtanga yoga and guru P.K. Jois.
“Evidently, in spite of Judge Meyer’s stated grave concerns about Jois Foundation’s mission to promote Ashtanga yoga to public school children and Ashtanga devotee Jen Brown’s transparent conflict of interest as a Jois Foundation employee and EUSD yoga teacher, these red flags were not enough to cause Judge Meyer to find ‘excessive government entanglement with religion’ and suspend the religious yoga program,” the law center said.
The school’s yoga teachings are for children in kindergarten through grade six.