U-T San Diego
March 29, 2013
By Gary Warth

Jurist reveals he is a practitioner, but not familiar with terms

A routine courtroom hearing to set a date for a lawsuit challenging yoga classes in Encinitas schools took an unexpected turn Thursday morning when the judge assigned to the case revealed that he practices yoga himself.

“Does anybody have a problem with that?” San Diego Superior Court Judge John Meyer asked.

Dean Broyles, who is representing parents suing the Encinitas Union School District in a lawsuit that has gained international attention, said he was fine with Meyer presiding over the case if the judge can keep an open mind about the plaintiff’s argument regarding spiritual connections to yoga.

While the purpose of the hearing was to set a trial date and consider whether the Coast Law Group could intervene on behalf of families in the district that support the yoga program, much of the hourlong courtroom discussion focused on whether yoga is inherently religious — the core question in the case.

Meyer, who said he began doing Bikram yoga about a month and a half ago, likened the activity to simple stretching exercises.

“If you think there’s something spiritual about what I do, that’s news to me,” he said.

It’s an argument Broyles has heard before. Many people, including administrators of the Encinitas school district, view yoga as a physical activity more associated with Pilates than prayers.

Broyles has said he believes people may be swayed by expert witness Candy Gunther Brown, a professor in the religious studies department at Indiana University who wrote a declaration asserting that the district’s yoga program promotes and advances religion, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and Western metaphysics.

With Brown on sabbatical in England, Broyles tentatively agreed to a May 20 court date for the trial but said he may seek a later date if she is not available by then.

The elementary school district began offering yoga as part of physical education at all of its schools in January. The program is funded with a three-year, $533,000 grant from the K.P. Jois Foundation, which also is paying for a related study about the benefits of yoga among children.

On Thursday, Broyles said the Ashtanga yoga taught in the district is one of the more spiritual versions of yoga. Meyer said he was unfamiliar with it and had not heard of other yoga terms Broyles asked about.

“Have you been taught the sun salutation?” Broyles asked, referring to a series of poses in yoga.

“The what?” Meyer responded.

“Have you done the lotus position?” Broyles asked.

“What’s that?” the judge replied.

Attorney Jack Sleeth, who is representing the district pro bono, asked whether physical motions alone could be considered religious.

“Now we’re getting into your closing argument,” Meyer said.

Besides setting a tentative date for the trial, Meyer agreed to allow the Coast Law Group to intervene in the lawsuit.

David Peck of that firm said he would represent for free the parents of more than 130 students who have joined a group called Yoga for Encinitas Students.

After the hearing, Peck and Sleeth said they would work together on the case, with Sleeth taking the lead as the district representative.

In the past, Peck said, the Coast Law Group has intervened in lawsuits involving environmental issues.