Yoga has been recognized as a “state religion” in a California school district, and an appeals court now is being asked to reject state officials’ arguments that the Hindu meditation and worship – which already has been affirmed as “religious” in a courtroom – has no more spiritual influence than football.
“This school district has essentially adopted a state religion and is forcing it upon our young children by requiring this class to be taken,” said Brad Dacus, president of Pacific Justice Institute, one of the group’s filing briefs with the state’s Court of Appeal for the state’s Fourth Appellate District.
“These actions violate the fundamental right of parents to raise their children according to their beliefs, and they disregard the Constitution that this nation was founded upon.”
The case was brought by the Sedlock family, whose children were being subjected to the training of Ashtanga yoga, which was being provided to the school under a contract with a religious group that promotes the benefits of the meditation and worship.
The case is against the Encinitas Union School District, whose officials say they have removed all the religious aspects of the faith activity even though a lower court found that some of the activities in the school, such as sitting and bowing, were identical to the religious “version.”
“The primary issue on appeal is, considering the context and history of the EUSD yoga program, whether the district is advancing or endorsing Ashtanga yoga – the religious nature of which is undisputed – or whether the district succeeded in stripping yoga (which the trial court found to be religious) of religion by creating a ‘religion-free’ form of yoga, dubbed ‘EUSD yoga’ at trial,” wrote lawyers for the National Center for Law and Policy, who are fighting the case.
“The district’s basic position in claiming to have stripped yoga of ‘cultural references’ to religion is that it can teach children to practice rituals of prayer and devotion from a religious tradition as long as it does not teach about the cultural history and religious contexts of rituals practices,” the court brief from NCLP said.
Already, the trial court ruled that Hinduism is a religion and yoga is “religious.” The trial court, however, agreed that the mandatory yoga classes could continue in the schools.
But the brief argues the district’s position is contrary to what is accepted in the U.S., where students can be taught about religions but cannot be taught to practice religion.
“The district boldly posits that its yoga program ‘is no more religious than football.’ … EUSD’s ‘football’ comparison is absurd and offensive. Perhaps what EUSD really means is that for many, yoga appears to be a purely ‘physical practice.’ But it does not logically follow that because yoga appears merely physical to an uninformed observer that, therefore, yoga is as non-religious as football,” the brief explains.
“First, football has no connection with religious practices engaged in by millions of religious adherents, as is the case with Ashtanga yoga and Hinduism. Second, individuals do not engage in football for ‘spiritual development.’ Third, unless one counts sports bars and man caves, there are no Ashrams or Shalas dedicated to football in Encinitas, while Encinitas hosts world-renowned Hindu worship centers. Fourth, football players do not, in practicing football, engage in religious rituals such as closing their eyes to meditate in the lotus position or bowing down to a sun god who is worshiped by millions.”
Dacus said the plaintiffs are parents of children from the district, and they object to the practice of yoga as taught at the school, such as praying to the sun.
He explains Ashtanga yoga promotes the belief system of eight limbs – or eight goals to unity with God.
The NCLP said others who are sounding off on the issue include the Church State Council and the World Faith Foundation.
The Yoga Alliance is endorsing the school district’s position.
The NCLP said in India, the national Supreme Court is considering a plan rejected by lower courts to teach yoga in the secular schools because it would discriminate against Muslim and Christian minorities.
The trial court’s ruling “stunned many in 2013” when it found that yoga is “religious,” the school’s poses are “identical” to the religious yoga, but the district nonetheless could teach it.
“No court in the past 50 years has permitted public school officials at school sponsored events to lead impressionable young students to actively participate in devotional religious exercises or practices like Ashtanga yoga’s Surya Namaskara,” said NCLP president Dean Broyles. “Public schools may certainly objectively teach about religion because religion is historically and culturally important. And students are free to express their personal religious beliefs … But the state itself is not constitutionally permitted to endorse or promote religion or religious practices at school sponsored events.
“This prohibition would certainly include bowing to the sun god.”
It was the Jois Foundation that “partnered” with EUSD to teach Ashtanga yoga in place of “traditional physical education.”
It has had the support, for example, of influences as high as Oprah Winfrey’s boyfriend, Stedman Graham, who has lobbied on behalf of the program, which Jois wants to expand nationwide. The private organization’s interest remains significant, as it paid the school $533,000 to be allowed to teach its yoga and the teachers must be approved by the foundation.
WND previously reported the Jois Foundation, also known as Somina, included among its founders 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 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 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.”
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 Encinitas, 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.