CHICAGO — A coalition of parents, a teacher and a group of churches have filed suit against Chicago Public Schools in an effort to stop the district from allowing Hindu transcendental meditation, and its initiation Puja, from being taught to students.
“Although all named defendants have made statements to the contrary, the ‘Quiet Time’ program is based in Hindu beliefs and the practice of ‘transcendental meditation’ is fundamentally religious in nature,” the legal challenge states.
“Plaintiffs’ rights under the First Amendment were violated when defendants created environments within public schools where Hindu beliefs and the practice of ‘transcendental meditation’ were being endorsed and students were coerced to engage in religious practices against their wills.”
The plaintiffs include the groups Separation of Hinduism from our Schools — a coalition of parents and students who oppose meditation and other practices being taught in schools — and Civil Liberties for Urban Believers, an association of churches and ministries in the Chicago area.
Substitute teacher Dasia Skinner, parent Darryl Williams and former student Amontae Williams are named in the suit as well.
According to the official complaint, the the David Lynch Foundation approached the University of Chicago Urban Labs to present the stated “Quiet Time” program within Chicago schools. The program is offered to inner-city schools across the country to combat “traumatic stress.”
“The Quiet Time program is a practical, evidence-based approach to reduce stress and dramatically improve academic performance, student wellness and the school environment,” the foundation website reads. “This schoolwide program complements existing educational strategies by improving the physiological underpinnings of learning and behavior.”
It claims that the program “does not involve any religion, philosophy, or change in lifestyle.”
But, according to the lawsuit, students in participating Chicago schools actively took part in a “Puja” initiation ceremony during school hours, bringing certain items to present to the image of Guru Dev — the teacher of Hindu transcendental meditation founder Maharishi Mahesh Yogi — although the identification of the person in the photograph was not disclosed.
The instructor also reportedly chanted words in Sanskrit, while not providing a translation of what she was saying.
Students were additionally taught various mantras to silently recite when engaged in meditation, being instructed in the pronunciation but being told that they were “meaningless sounds.”
“Mantras are drawn from a select pool of Sanskrit words that honor or reference specific Hindu deities. For example, the ‘Aim’ mantra is associated with the deity Saraswati, who is the Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, art, wisdom, and learning,” the lawsuit states.
Two meditation sessions were held per day, with the instructor ringing a “ghanta” bell, used in Hindu rituals, to announce the start of the 15-minute practice.
“The students were instructed to keep all information about the ‘Puja’ initiation ritual a secret from anyone else, including their parents,” substitute teacher Dasia Skinner testified in her official declaration. “Students told me that the TM instructors warned them that what happened in the ‘Quiet Time’ room was supposed to stay in the ‘Quiet Time’ room.”
The lawsuit also alleges that while students were able to opt-out, they were “nevertheless also pressured to participate.” It states that the program is a violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“[Chicago Public Schools’] practice coerces students and others to engage in religious practices and rituals that are based in Hinduism, and thus violates both the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise rights of the students,” it states. “CPS’ practice communicates a message that the district endorses and favors the Hindu belief system and the practice of ‘transcendental meditation.'”
The plaintiffs are seeking a declaration that the practice of transcendental meditation is indeed religious in nature, as well as an injunction preventing the “Quiet Time” program, or any similar program, from being presented to students in the future.
Last year, the Chicago Tribune published an article on the practice of transcendental meditation in schools, explaining the concerns of one student at Bogan Computer Technical High School, who said that said instructors “chanted in a foreign language” and “threw rice, seasonings and oranges in a pan in front of a picture of a man.”
“[T]hey tell us to place the flowers in the pan with everything else, and they ended the song,” Jade recounted. “I felt uncomfortable because I didn’t know what they were saying or who the man was in the picture.”