Encinitas, California – The parents of two elementary school students have filed a lawsuit against their local school district for teaching yoga to their children, which they assert promotes religion in the classroom.
Schools within the Encinitas Unified School District began teaching Ashtanga yoga to children last September as part of a three-year, $533,000 grant from the Jois Foundation, which promotes yoga in schools. The classes are incorporated into the district’s physical education program, and are taught twice as week for thirty minutes. Jois-certified teachers lead the instruction for the students.
However, some of the parents of the students, yet unnamed, have taken issue with the practice, claiming that the district is violating the separation of church and state by teaching classes that stem from Eastern religions. They assert that the eight-limbed posters on the walls of the school are representative of Hindu beliefs, that the greeting “namaste” and the various poses that are involved in Yoga all stem from Hinduism, and that some of the practices are representative of Hindu deities.
“EUSD’s Ashtanga yoga program represents a serious breach of the public trust,” stated attorney Dean Broyles of the National Center for Law and Policy, which is representing the parents. “Compliance with the clear requirements of law is not optional or discretionary. This is frankly the clearest case of the state trampling on the religious freedom rights of citizens that I have personally witnessed in my 18 years of practice as a constitutional attorney.”
However, the Encinitas Unified School District contends that the yoga classes are in no way religious, and should not be considered the promotion of any type of faith or belief system.
“We’re not teaching religion,” said Superintendent Timothy Baird. “We teach a very mainstream physical fitness program that happens to incorporate yoga into it. It’s part of our overall wellness program. The vast majority of students and parents support it.”
Broyles said that the lawsuit would never have been filed if the matter was only about health and fitness.
“As a First Amendment lawyer, I wouldn’t go after an exercise program. I don’t go after people for stretching,” he argued. “But Ashtanga yoga is a religious-based yoga, and if we are separating church and state, we can’t pick and choose religious favorites.”
The parents of the children involved also assert that while students can opt out of the program, they are subject to harassment over the matter, and are not allowed to make up for lost physical education time — a requirement for students — as they merely sit out the classes and read.
“The kids who are opting out are getting teased and bullied,” Broyles explained. “We have one little girl whose classmates told her parents are stupid because she opted out. That’s not supposed to happen in our schools.”
Baird told reporters that he is saddened that the classes continue to be a point of contention.
“We are disappointed by the suit,” he said. “We thought we had worked well with the concerned parents and had resolved their concerns.”
The lawsuit seeks an injunction from the courts in suspending the classes, and does not involve any monetary retribution.