Yoga lawsuit will head to court in May

Yoga lawsuit will head to court in May
Students at Paul Ecke Central participate in a yoga class. The National Center for Law and Policy sued the Encinitas Union School District over the program, and the trial will start May 20. Photo by Jared Whitlock

ENCINITAS — During a courtroom hearing last week it was decided a lawsuit demanding the end of a school yoga program will be heard May 20. 

Two months ago, the Escondido-based National Center for Law and Policy filed a civil rights lawsuit seeking an injunction against the EUSD (Encinitas Union School District) yoga program on the grounds that it violates the establishment clause, or what’s more commonly known as “separation of church and state.”

“I wouldn’t have filed this lawsuit if I didn’t think we would win,” said Broyles, who represents the law center.

As proof of the religious nature of yoga, Broyle’s legal complaint says that parents witnessed students in the district practicing sun salutations — a series of yoga moves and other poses. The complaint asserts the poses are “worshipful.”

District officials, however, have maintained that the yoga program doesn’t contain any kind of religious component, and that it was built on state and federal fitness standards, not any kind of religious doctrine.

EUSD introduced yoga classes at five of its schools in the fall with a $533,000 grant from the Jois Foundation. In January, yoga debuted at the district’s four remaining schools.

Broyles said expert witness Candy Gunther Brown will testify on behalf of his case. Brown, a religious studies professor at Indiana University, penned a declaration arguing that yoga is inherently religious. She believes yoga can’t be separated from Hinduism, Western metaphysics and other religions.

“Protestants have been prone to misunderstand embodied traditions in which practice is itself an essential expression of religious devotion,” Brown said in the declaration. “For many Hindus and Buddhists, for instance, religious significance exists directly in the doing, rather than secondarily in believing or saying something, while performing bodily or mental practices.”

But David Peck, representing EUSD parents, countered that people don’t view modern yoga studios as religious. And the same goes for the advent of competitive yoga, he added.

“Those aren’t religious; neither is the district’s program,” Peck said.

He added that Brown’s declaration is “80 percent opinion and has no relevance to the case at hand.”

As well as committing to a trial date, the judge during last week’s public hearing let Peck, a lawyer from the Encinitas-based Coast Law Group, intervene in the case.

Peck noted the district’s lawyer, Jack Sleeth, will take the lead in the lawsuit. Both attorneys took the case pro bono.

Peck said he’s representing the parents of more than 130 students in the district.

“Many district parents are interested in preserving this program,” Peck said.

According to the legal complaint, the case will also focus on students who were pulled from the program by their parents and allegedly haven’t been receiving 200 minutes of state-mandated physical education time.

District officials have countered this claim, arguing that EUSD isn’t technically required to provide an alternative program.

Still, they say the district has worked to accommodate those students.

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