Yoga teacher Jackie Bergeron works with students at Paul Ecke Central Elementary School in Encinitas last October. / photo by Eduardo Contreras * U-T

U-T San Diego
May 20, 2013
by Gary Warth

 “What is religion?” judge asks as controversial case begins

A trial spurred by some parents who want to suspend a yoga program in the Encinitas Union School District kicked off Monday with a debate not often heard in a courtroom.

“What is religion?” asked San Diego Superior Court Judge John Meyer, who is overseeing the proceedings. He also began the day by saying “this will be an interesting case.”

No definitive answer to the philosophical question was given Monday, but it was clear that the influence of religion on the district’s yoga program — if any — would be central to the trial.

The district introduced yoga as a pilot program in one of its nine schools in 2011 with a grant of about $534,000 from the KP Jois Foundation. It expanded the program to all of its campuses in January, classifying it as physical education.

The plaintiffs’ attorney is Dean Broyles, president of the Escondido-based, nonprofit National Center for Law & Policy.

In his opening statement, Broyles said the early version of the district’s program referred specifically to Ashtanga yoga, a style promoted by the foundation. He read from a foundation brochure that said this method of yoga can “lead to great awareness of our spiritual potential.” He also described children in the program sitting cross-legged in a lotus position, with their arms outstretched, fingers encircled and pinkies extended in what he described as a prayer pose.

Attorney David Peck, who has joined the case on behalf of parents in the group Yoga for Encinitas Students, said in his opening statement that there may have been “missteps” when the curriculum was introduced but what matters now is that all religious references have been removed.

Tim Baird, superintendent of the Encinitas district, took the stand as the first witness and also defended the program. When Broyles questioned him about the foundation’s role in the program, Baird said the district’s curriculum is independent and should be called “EUSD Yoga.”

“Are you an expert on how to define religion?” Broyles asked Baird. After Baird said he was not, Broyles questioned how he could then define the district’s program as nonreligious.

The trial is expected to continue Tuesday.