“Ohmmm” my goodness: Yoga and religion in public schools

The Encinitas Union School District near San Diego has been hit with a lawsuit that claims the school district violates the students’ religious freedom. How? It provides yoga classes to elementary school students.

Yoga_Class_at_a_Gym4The physical education program is funded by a nonprofit organization that trains students in Ashtanga yoga, which comprises both the physical fitness aspects of yoga along with breathing practices, stress management techniques, and other life skills. Those principles, the plaintiff argues, have roots in Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, and metaphysical beliefs that are inherently religious and, as a result, violate the public school’s duty to maintain a separation between church and state.

Many people are confused. There is no Church of Yoga. How can teaching yoga in school violate the Constitution?

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states in part: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Similarly, the California Constitution forbids any public funding of religious instruction and guarantees that “free exercise and enjoyment of religion without discrimination or preference.”

Link: Petition & Complaint for Sedlock v. Baird

But before determining if the public school is, through its program, establishing religion, it would be helpful to understand the definition of a “religion.”

While the lawsuit is based on religious freedom under the California state constitution, the U.S. Supreme Court has taken up the matter of what qualifies as a religion on many occasions, and their decisions shed light on the yoga case.

In the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which, among other prohibitions, prevents discrimination on the basis of religion, Congress defined religion as “a belief [that] must be sincerely held, and within the believer’s own scheme of things religious.” But the use of the word “religious” to define religion is not very helpful.

For further clarification, we turn to the Supreme Court, whose definition of a “religion” has (ironically enough) evolved over time. When the Supreme Court first took up the task of defining religion in 1890 in Davis v. Beason, it stated: “The term ‘religion’ has reference to one’s views of his relations to his Creator, and to the obligations they impose of reverence for his being and character and of obedience to his will.” In other words, to be a religion, there must be a belief in God and the practice of worship.

But over time, the court recognized a broader definition of religion, stating in 1944 in United States v. Ballard that it is based on “the right to maintain theories of life and of death and of the hereafter which are rank heresy to followers of the orthodox faiths…. Religious experiences which are as real as life to some may be incomprehensible to others. Yet the fact that they may be beyond the ken of mortals does not mean that they can be made suspect before the law.”

Religion, according to the Supreme Court, does not need to include a belief in the existence of God, nor does it need to be a belief in a traditional denomination to be protected by the First Amendment. The court has protected secular humanism, pacifism, and other belief systems that do not involve a belief in God against governmental interference.

As for the question in the lawsuit against the California school district, the court will need to consider whether the yoga program includes the teaching of morality and whether the program intends to provide secular or sacred doctrine. For the moment, we court watchers will all need to breathe deeply and wait to see how the case is resolved.

Amy E. Feldman is the Legal Education Consultant to the National Constitution Center. She is the General Counsel of The Judge Group, Inc., a leading global professional services based in Philadelphia.

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