U-T San Diego
May 19, 2013
by Gary Warth

Lawsuit objects to using it as part of curriculum, says it’s a form of religion

A trial to consider whether yoga is a secular exercise or a form of religion that’s inappropriate for public schools is scheduled to start Monday in San Diego Superior Court.

The lawsuit filed against the Encinitas Union School District by the Escondido-based, nonprofit National Center for Law & Policy may be the first of its kind in the United States and has gained international attention.

The center filed the suit on behalf of plaintiffs Stephen and Jennifer Sedlock and William Bentz, parents and guardian of students in the district.

Those plaintiffs accuse the district of violating laws regarding the separation of church and state by offering a curriculum that is spiritually based. District officials counter that the exercises practiced by students are far removed from any religious origins.

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The trial is scheduled to take place in San Diego Superior Court before Judge John Meyer.

During a March court hearing to set a trial date, Meyer revealed that he practices yoga himself and does not see anything religious about it.

In a 31-page trial brief filed to the court, the center’s president, Dean Broyles, reviewed the origins of the district’s yoga program and argued that it could not be separated from its religious roots.

The program is funded by a $533,720 grant from the KP Jois Foundation, which also is paying for a study about how students are affected by a style of yoga known as Ashtanga. Broyles wrote that the foundation’s goal was to launch a nationwide Ashtanga yoga initiative in public schools.

While district officials have asserted that any religious references have been stripped away, Broyles wrote that the curriculum on the district’s website “confirms and underscores the inherently and pervasively religious nature of the program.” He noted language that refers to helping students connect with their “inner selves” and bringing the “inner spirit of each child to the surface.”

Broyles also wrote that the curriculum teaches the Sun Salutation pose, which represents worship of the Hindu solar deity, and the lotus and resting poses, which embody religious symbolism. Citing quotes from Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, who developed Ashtanga yoga, Broyles wrote that yoga postures can unintentionally lead to “absorption into the Universal/union with the Divine.” He also said there is evidence to support Jois’ belief that the physical practice of yoga will lead to personal religious transformation.

A 12-page trial brief filed by the law firm Stutz, Artiano, Shinoff & Holtz on behalf of the school district argues that the exercise program was “built from scratch” with no religious instruction.

In a related issue, Broyles wrote that students who opted out of the program were teased, harassed and bullied by other students and also denied the physical education time required by the state. The district’s trial brief said no students are denied P.E. time because the yoga program is offered in addition to — and not in place of — existing P.E. activities. The district’s trial brief also backs away from the term yoga itself, saying it is not yoga “per se” but rather stretching, balancing and breathing exercises derived from yoga that are designed to enhance physical and mental fitness. “A reasonable observer familiar with the program would conclude that the primary purpose was the health and well-being of the students,” the brief said.

The Encinitas-based Coast Law Group, which has joined the lawsuit on behalf of families who support the district’s yoga program, filed a six-page trial brief.

In it, attorney David Peck wrote that the plaintiff’s view of yoga as religious is “myopic,” as the practice has evolved to include broad definitions such as “paddleboard yoga,” “hip-hop yoga,” “yoga booty ballet” and a form specifically for men called “broga.”