Appeals court sends clear message: Yoga ‘isn’t religious’

Appeals court sends clear message: Yoga ‘isn’t religious’
The Fourth District Court of Appeal delivers a 3-0 ruling last week that upholds a lower court’s ruling that the Encinitas Union School District’s yoga program does not violate the state Constitution’s separation of church and state. File photo

REGION — The State Court of Appeal has sent an clear message about Encinitas Union School District’s yoga program to the family and organization that challenged it: it isn’t religious.

The Fourth District Court of Appeal last week delivered a 3-0 ruling that upholds a lower court’s ruling that the K-6 school district’s yoga program does not violate the state Constitution’s separation of church and state.

“After a careful review of the extensive evidence presented in the trial court concerning the nature of the particular yoga program at issue in this case, we conclude that the program is secular in purpose, does not have the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion, and does not excessively entangle the school district in religion,” Associate Justice Cynthia Aaron wrote in the unanimous opinion.  ”Accordingly, we conclude that the trial court properly determined that the district’s yoga program does not violate our state constitution.”

The appeal’s court ruling upholds Superior Court Judge John Meyer’s decision in 2013 in favor of the school district at the group Yoga for Encinitas Students – known as YES! – that the district’s program did not endorse Hinduism over other religion and did not create a violation of the so-called “establishment” clause of the constitution.

“We are thankful that this episode has ended, even though we anticipated the outcome, it is nice to be on this side of it,” Encinitas Union School District superintendent Timothy Baird said. “It doesn’t change anything in the way we are delivering the program. We are appreciative that the appeals court found in our favor.”

The case, Sedlock v. Baird, was filed by the National Center for Law and Policy, a conservative rights law group, on behalf of the parents of two El Camino Creek students, who said that the district’s yoga program was an endorsement of Hindu religious beliefs promoted in Ashtanga yoga and indoctrinated students with those beliefs.

The three-judge appeal panel refuted each of the arguments made by the conservative law group, concluding that the yoga class had a primary secular purpose — physical fitness — that it did not advance or inhibit a particular religion and did not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion.

The court acknowledged that the origin of yoga was religious, but noted that so are other forms of physical fitness that have become mainstream practices, including karate, kung fu and other martial arts.

But the district’s yoga program, which the school district argued had been stripped of all vestiges of religious symbolism, was not religious in nature, the court concluded.

“To be sure, if the District’s program instructed children that through yoga they would become one with God and that yoga could help end the karmic cycle of reincarnation…we have little doubt that the program would violate the establishment clause,” Aaron wrote in the ruling.  ”However, nowhere in the District’s curriculum is there mention of any of the eight limbs of Ashtanga, and there is certainly no mention of the final limb (union with the divine). Indeed, as described above, there is no evidence of any religious indoctrination in any of the written curriculum or in the evidence related to the teaching methods employed in actual District yoga classes.”

Following the court’s ruling, one Hindu organization called on all school districts to adopt yoga into their physical fitness programs.

“If Encinitas Union School District could successfully teach yoga, why not other California school districts could do it similarly?” said Rajan Zed, president of the Universal Society of Hinduism.

School district officials thanked the law firms, both on the district’s side and with YES, that defended the district free of charge.

“This would have been a very expensive case to defend, especially when it reached the appeals phase,” Baird said. “We are very thankful to both law firms representing the district.”

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