Los Angeles Daily Journal
December 10, 2012
By Katie Lucia

A constitutional law attorney has threatened to sue the Encinitas Unified School District, alleging its public schools violated the Establishment Clause when they began teaching a certain type of yoga with roots in Eastern religion. If filed, the unusual case would join a small handful of suits alleging government promotion of non-Christian faiths – cases that usually don’t hold up in court.

Escondido-based attorney Dean Broyles, who specializes in religious freedom issues, said he plans to sue the school district if it doesn’t stop its plan to replace all required elementary school physical education classes with Ashtanga Yoga classes. He argues the classes, already being taught at half of the district’s elementary schools, employ specific Hindu beliefs and practices that are deeply infused in that type of yoga.

“Ashtonga yoga is not 24-Hour Fitness yoga,” Broyles said. “It’s inherently religious.”

The issue has received national media attention, raising questions about the influence of religion in the district’s curriculum and in the practice of yoga in general.

“This happens every now and then that there will be a discussion about whether something is religious or not, and that opens up all sorts of great philosophical issues,” said Aaron Caplan, constitutional law professor at Loyola School of Law in Los Angeles. “I’m sure if we had a sociologist, a philosopher and a theologian, we could have a fascinating discussion on what counts as religion and what doesn’t.”

The court’s decision would ultimately depend on what’s being taught in the classroom, he said.

By January, the district plans to transition all of its required elementary school P.E. classes to Ashtanga Yoga classes – a move that follows the district’s receipt of a $533,000 grant from the Joic Foundation, a nonprofit group supporting the discipline.

Broyles said he became involved when a parent complained to him about the classes. He said he didn’t believe it at first but that after looking at the curriculum and speaking to parents, he saw what he felt were serious constitutional violations.

“One thing is Eastern meditation – specifically to clear the mind of all thought – is a religious practice,” Broyles said. “Guided imagery is used in the curriculum – that is having kids imagine; yoga breathing, which is endemic to Hinduism and yoga; [and] worshipful poses, designed to acknowledge or pay homage to specific Hindu deities.”

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School district officials have said the yoga taught in their classrooms has been stripped of all religion and is purely aimed to improve student health and focus.

“Performing the physical act of yoga without any consciousness or spiritual intent cannot be a form of practicing religion,” said Dave Peck, an attorney with Coast Law Group who offered to represent the district pro bono. “You can’t unintentionally engage in spiritualism, and you can’t unintentionally practice religion. That doesn’t make sense.”

Even if aspects of the Hindu religion were being taught in the classrooms, that wouldn’t necessarily rise to a constitutional violation, according to Barry McDonald, a constitutional law professor at Pepperdine University School of Law.

“The court has always said schools can teach about religion,” McDonald said. “You can teach about religion. You just can’t teach that certain religions are true.”

Caplan said there have been a few cases in which conservative Christians challenged what they considered pagan practices in schools, such as those associated with Halloween.

“Those usually lose,” he said.

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