School yoga program ‘passes constitutional muster’

School yoga program ‘passes constitutional muster’
Judge John Meyer rules that the Encinitas Union School District program is constitutional — a decision that’s likely to be appealed. Photos by Jared Whitlock

Judge John Meyer ruled Monday morning that an Encinitas school yoga program can continue, setting a legal precedent in possibly the first trial of its kind. 

Meyer, rather than a jury, was tasked with deciding whether the Encinitas Union School District (EUSD) yoga program violates separation of church and state.

“The court is determining that EUSD yoga passes constitutional muster under the United States and California constitutions,” Meyer said.

Meyer opened his remarks, which lasted for 90 minutes, by stating: “this is not an easy case for a variety of reasons.”

He said that yoga has roots in Hinduism and other religions, as evidenced by witness testimony. But ultimately, Meyer found that the EUSD brand of yoga only promotes physical and mental wellness, not any religious doctrine.

Attorney Dean Broyles, who filed the lawsuit for EUSD parents Stephen and Jennifer Sedlock, said it’s likely he will appeal the decision. If that happens, the case will go to the 4th District Court of Appeal.

“The case certainly isn’t over,” Broyles said. “It’s always been known the broad implications and importance of this case, and the likelihood of appeal, no matter who won or lost would be great.”

Broyles maintained that followers of Hinduism worship the divine through physical movement, as opposed to word-centric Western religions. Hence, students doing yoga — no matter if the poses have neutral names like “criss-cross applesauce” — is inherently religious.

“I think we have a real double standard between various religions,” Broyles said.

Eugene Ruffin, CEO of the Jois Foundation, said the ruling will bolster school yoga programs.

Eugene Ruffin, CEO of the Jois Foundation, said the ruling will bolster school yoga programs.

Meyer said his decision was based on the legal framework established by the three-pronged “lemon test” in the landmark 1971 Supreme Court case “Lemon v. Kurtzman.”

First, Meyer said the intent of the program is secular in nature.

“The district’s purpose is to teach physical education, health and wellness,” Meyer said.

The program doesn’t advance or inhibit religion, though that conclusion wasn’t easy to reach, he said.

Meyer said he placed some weight in the testimony of Candy Gunther Brown, a religious studies professor from Indiana University who took the stand on behalf of the plaintiffs several weeks ago. She said yoga is inherently religious because it falls under the umbrella of experience-oriented religions like Hinduism.

Meyer said Brown is “eminently qualified” to opine about religion. Yet he questioned her ability to be objective since she also believes karate and acupuncture are religious in a modern context.

In the end, Meyer sided with EUSD after reading declarations from its own experts that countered yoga can be practiced free of religion. Plus, Meyer said it’s doubtful whether the average student can find religion in the school’s program.

Meyer said EUSD isn’t “excessively tangled with religion,” — the third prong. But that was the “most troubling” issue to consider in light of the relationship between EUSD and the Jois Foundation, which funded the yoga program.

The plaintiffs argued that the Jois Foundation only provided a $533,000 grant for the yoga program, as well as cooking and other classes, to spread spirituality.

Meyer said the foundation’s role in the yoga program isn’t crystal clear. For one, a grant proposal for the yoga program, which was drafted about a year ago, stated that Jois would certify and train teachers.

District leaders, however, testified that the grant language should have been changed. Regardless, they maintained they were ultimately in charge of the curriculum and which teachers were hired. That ultimately proved to be sound reasoning for Meyer.

“The court does not believe the district is in any sort of conspiracy with the Jois Foundation,” Meyer said. “And then I suppose the question…is the district being duped? I don’t think so.”

The parents who brought the lawsuit objected to Sanskrit writings that were initially part of the program, according to testimony last week. Meyer said it’s “somewhat striking” the parents didn’t observe an EUSD yoga class firsthand.

Meyer went on to say that other parents against the program relied on information pulled from questionable Internet sources.

“It’s almost like a trial by Wikipedia, which isn’t what this court does,” Meyer said.

It’s believed the case was the first challenge of a school yoga program on constitutional grounds. EUSD introduced yoga to five of its nine schools this past fall, and the program began at the rest of the schools in January of this year. Students in all grades, with the exception of 2 percent of children whose parents opted them out, take part in the classes twice a week for 30 minutes.

Based on the EUSD program, the Jois Foundation is nearing completion of a yoga curriculum that will serve as a template for other districts, according to Eugene Ruffin, the CEO of the organization.

“It will be an open document for other school districts to use,” Ruffin said.

He said the ruling, combined with a soon-to-be-released study on EUSD yoga from the University of San Diego, should give school districts added incentive to consider yoga.

“It (the ruling) allows the lines to be drawn so people can read what the issues are,” Ruffin said. “Of course you want more dialogue and questions from both sides so you can have a program that’s more meaningful and beneficial to children.”

He later added that accusations of Jois spreading religion are “rather preposterous.”



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