ENCINITAS — Is yoga instruction religious?
Attorneys debated that question for nine hours this week during the closing arguments of a trial on the constitutionality of the (EUSD) Encinitas Union School District’s yoga program.
Attorney David Peck, representing 150 EUSD families, wrapped up the defense’s case Wednesday morning. He said that equating yoga with religion means other school programs could theoretically be sued.
“Think of the slippery slope implication we would be faced with if any type of physical exercise that someone perceives to be religious, or incorporates into their religion, is banned from the public schools on constitutional grounds.
“There are sects out there that consider running to be religious…and certainly nobody is suggesting that we ban running from the schools,” Peck said.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of EUSD parents Stephen and Jennifer Sedlock, seeks to disband the district’s school yoga program on the basis that it violates separation of church and state.
The parents objected to Sanskrit writings that were initially part of the program, according to testimony Monday. And they were concerned that yoga is too strenuous for young students. Cross-examination revealed that the parents didn’t observe a yoga class firsthand.
Dean Broyles, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, kicked off closing arguments Tuesday by stating many Westerners have a difficult time comprehending Eastern religions.
He maintained that followers of Hinduism worship the divine through physical movement like yoga, rather than words. As evidence, he referenced testimony from witness Candy Gunther Brown, who is a scholar and a religious studies professor at Indiana University.
“We have two broad categories of religion,” Broyles said. “Those that are belief and word focused such as…Christianity and those that are practice and experience focused such as Hinduism,” Broyles said.
He then quoted Brown’s testimony: “‘Americans may not recognize practice and experience-oriented religions as religious, because they think religion requires that one believe or say certain things.’”
Broyles affirmed that because practicing yoga is inherently religious, the court should end EUSD yoga right away.
Jack Sleeth, another attorney representing EUSD, countered that the defense submitted testimony from a scholar as well as three written declarations from experts who argue yoga can be secular. Further, he said Brown’s testimony isn’t credible since she believes chiropractic care and acupuncture are religious.
He added that the minor connection between EUSD’s program and Hinduism doesn’t make yoga religious.
“The Easter egg hunt on the White House lawn is linked to Druidism, as practiced in England before the Roman conquest,” Sleeth said. “But it would be nonsense to say that the president can’t put out Easter eggs.”
EUSD introduced yoga to five of its nine schools this past fall. The program launched at the remaining schools in January of this year. Students in all grades participate in the classes twice a week for 30 minutes.
Two months after EUSD yoga started, parents voiced concerns during a school board meeting. Much of the scrutiny focused on Sanskrit writings found in the yoga classes.
Sleeth said that initially the district taught Sanskrit as part of school yoga. He said that was removed at the behest of parents, but that’s not proof that yoga is religious or spiritually charged.
“We weren’t modifying it to strip out religion; we were modifying it to react to parents’ objections,” Sleeth said.
“Parents didn’t like Sanskrit,” Sleeth said. “Well OK, it’s not important to the wellness program.”
Broyles said that there’s plenty more proof of yoga’s religious nature. The sequence of poses in EUSD classes mirrors Ashtanga yoga, a particularly religious kind of yoga. And he said some children spontaneously chanted “om” during yoga classes, even though that wasn’t part of the planned lesson, and they weren’t instructed to do so.
“It shows they’re connecting it to something more than physical exercise,” Broyles said.
Judge John Meyer questioned that reasoning, as well as other points delivered in each side’s closing arguments.
“The curriculum is the basis for the class,” Meyer said. “What happens in class is not what happens with the curriculum — there’s a difference.
“If you go to observe a class, and there are two children that use profanity, and then you conclude the curriculum includes teaching profanity, that’s wrong,” Meyer added.
Both parties agreed that Meyer, rather than a jury, will decide on whether the program is legal.
Later, Broyles said the legality of the case largely depends on whether an informed child could find any religious component in the school’s yoga program.
Meyer inquired how a child could know if yoga is religious.
“How would they know that?” Meyer asked. “They’re little kids.”
Broyles responded: “They would know it from television, they would know it from living in Encinitas, their parents…they would know it from cultural references and from what they learned in various locations.”
But Broyles added that’s irrelevant because legal precedent “assumes the child is informed.”
Sleeth, however, said that perspective is unfair and not supported by case law. The court should consider the viewpoint of “a reasonable” child and if he or she would find a strong link between yoga and religion, he argued.
When asked, Broyles said the yoga program, even if called something else, would still be religious considering the overtly spiritual nature of the poses.
He also maintained that the district failed to produce a viable PE alternative for children who were opted out of yoga. Broyles said prominent law cases like “Engel v. Vitale” conclude that opt-out provisions don’t automatically shield a program from being labeled religious.
He went on to argue that the Jois Foundation, a group that provided a $533,000 grant for the yoga program as well as cooking and other classes, bought its way into EUSD schools to spread religion.
He said the Jois Foundation has deep roots in Hinduism, tracing back to Patabhi Jois, an Indian yoga instructor who taught yoga periodically in Encinitas for 20 years beginning in 1975.
“He is very clear: The practice might appear physical, but this is very wrong, it produces a spiritual transformation,” Broyles said of Patabhi Jois.
And Broyles said it’s troubling that the grant proposal for the program specifies the Jois Foundation should train and approve the yoga teachers.
The grant proposal, which was drafted about a year ago, indeed states that Jois would certify teachers, according to the program’s architect, David Miyashiro, who is the assistant superintendent of education services for EUSD. But in reality, the Jois Foundation didn’t have a final say on the 10 instructors were hired, he said.
Miyashiro said the grant language should have been “changed,” but wasn’t amended due to the busyness of preparing for the approaching school year. He added that the Jois Foundation had little influence over the curriculum.
On Monday, Broyles said his closing argument would take two hours, but his remarks stretched on over five hours, extending the trial by one day.
The plaintiff isn’t seeking monetary damages, only to stop the program. Judge Meyer said he would issue a ruling on the case from the bench Monday morning.