ENCINITAS — A lawsuit seeking the end of a school yoga program has been a lightning rod for controversy. On Monday, the case kicked off in a downtown San Diego courtroom.
Judge John Meyer set the scene by stating the case will hinge on whether yoga taught in the EUSD (Encinitas Union School District) is religious. Meyers even asked the attorneys to answer an open-ended question: “What is religion?”
Dean Broyles, an attorney who filed the lawsuit three months ago on behalf of two parents in the district, said he couldn’t specifically define religion. But in his opening remarks, Broyles said he’s sure of one thing: Yoga falls under the umbrella of religion. Consequently, he maintained, EUSD violated the separation of church and state by incorporating the practice into its curriculum.
Students were made “spiritual guinea pigs” and “religious test subjects,” Broyles said.
In the fall, EUSD introduced yoga at five of its nine schools after receiving a $533,000 grant from the Encinitas-based Jois Foundation. In January, the program debuted at the remaining schools.
Broyles maintained that the Jois Foundation promotes Ashtanga yoga — a particularly religious type of yoga. At one point, Broyles read from a Jois Foundation brochure.
“Ashtanga yoga means eight limbed; it is an ancient system that can lead to liberation and greater awareness of our spiritual potential,” Broyles said, quoting the brochure.
Broyles went on to argue that the Jois Foundation influenced much of the district’s yoga program. He
pointed out that the initial agreement between the district and Jois Foundation for the grant stipulates that students learn Ashtanga yoga.
Additionally, students were encouraged to utter “Namaste” to each other, which Broyles called a “religiously-laden Hinduism greeting.” Further, he added that students colored mandalas — a kind of artwork he said is steeped in religion.
But EUSD Superintendent Tim Baird, the first witness called to the stand by Broyles, said that the district — not the Jois Foundation — crafted the yoga program. And it was created purely to promote health and fitness.
“I think you could you could bring in Ashtanga experts and they would say we’re not doing Ashtanga yoga that you see in a studio,” Baird said. “We do Encinitas Union School District yoga.”
“It’s just us developing the curriculum,” Baird said later.
Baird acknowledged the grant’s memorandum of understanding initially specified Ashtanga yoga. Also, there were a few cultural references in the program parents objected to in the fall. But Baird said any language about Ashtanga yoga was struck. And that any sensitive references were removed because the curriculum “evolved.”
Attorney David Peck, representing the defense, echoed the statement during the preliminary remarks. Even though there might have been “missteps” in the beginning, he said the program is being judged on whether it contains any religious component presently.
“What matters is what’s taking part in the yoga classroom today,” Peck said.
Further, Peck said the case centers on whether the average student could find any religious component to the program. The “fanatical” prism of extreme parents is irrelevant, he said.
Upon being asked by Broyles, Baird said that he didn’t research the origins of the Jois Foundation or Ashtanga yoga. He said EUSD is only interested in “spreading health and wellness.”
The trial will continue on Tuesday.