Judge Holds That Particular Sorts of Yoga Classes in Public School Are Constitutionally Permissible

The L.A. Times reports:

Dean Broyles, president and attorney for the Escondido-based National Center for Law and Policy, had filed a lawsuit on behalf of a couple with two children in the [Encinitas Union School District]. The suit sought to have the program ousted as a violation of state law prohibiting the teaching of religion in public schools….

Students attend two 30-minute yoga sessions each week. The yoga program has been supported by a $533,000 grant from a local studio that teaches Ashtanga yoga.

The studio is linked to the Jois Foundation, supported by hedge-fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones II and his wife, Sonia, who were followers of yoga teacher Krishna Pattabhi Jois. Jois, whose devotees included Madonna and Sting, stayed briefly in Encinitas.

Encinitas schools Supt. Tim Baird has said that the program is worthwhile in teaching healthy exercise and eating habits. He said he hopes that teaching yoga to students will decrease instances of fighting and bullying….

Here’s the judge’s reasoning from a minute order in Sedlock v. Baird, No. 37-2013-00035910-CU-MC-CTL (San Diego County Super. Ct. July 1, 2013):

The court states the issue is the first amendment and no other things. The court states that its question is “Is yoga a religious activity?” The court states that the district says it is not and the court needs to make a determination if it is or is not.

The court reads excerpts from case law and Dr. Brown’s testimony. The court determines yoga is religious. The court then needs to determine if EUSD (Encinitas Unified School District) yoga is to be taught in the school district.

The court states that the seminal case is the Lemon case. The court states that the “Lemon Test” is a three pronged test. The first prong is to determine whether or not the purpose of the activity is secular. The court finds the district intends to teach health and welfare, therefore the prong is not proven.

The second prong is whether to classify the primary effect of teaching yoga is to advance or prohibit religion. In this case the experts disagree. The court reads excerpts from Dr. Brown’s trial testimony. The court states there needs to be a preponderance of creditable competent evidence that a student in the 2012/13 school year received a message of eastern religion or anti- western religion.

The court states that the “yes” evidence is that students would perceive endorsement of religion with a negative look of some other religion, are the non-objective declarations of parent who opted out without putting their child in the program. The court reads excerpts of the letters and notes that they are “Trial by Wikipedia” and that some of the declarations have the exact same wording which causes the court to question the declarant. The court states that Dr. Brown is not objective and not creditable and Dr. Brown is biased. The court disagrees with Dr. Brown as to the videos. The court states that Dr. Brown is petitioners’ case.

The court states the “no” evidence is that there is a written curriculum and have both a physical and characteristic component. The court reads excerpts of the curriculum and finds there is nothing religious in the curriculum there are moral teachings which are universal. The court reads excerpts of the teachers’ declarations and the declaration of the intervener’s expert.

The court reviewed the testimony and exhibits and finds that Dr. Brown is the only declarant taking the view that the objective student would perceive religion in EUSD yoga. The court finds the objective child would not perceive that EUSD yoga advances or prohibits yoga, therefore this prong is not proven.

As to the third prong the court reads excerpts of Lemon and notes that in that case the district did not have control over the nuns, but in this case the district has complete control over the curriculum and the teachers. The district would take action if they felt warranted. This case is different from Lemon.

The court states that a troublesome issue is the influence of the Jois Foundation. It appears Jois has a mission to have the physical part of yoga in schools. The court states that Jennifer Brown does have a connection with Jois and that this is the most troublesome to the court. The court finds that the district is not in conspiracy with Jois and the district is not being duped.

The court is convinced the district has a complete separation from Jois. The testimony of the district witnesses was creditable. The court cannot control what the district does in the future. The district is not teaching a religious component in its health and welfare program.

This physical education, health and wellness, is not different except it involves EUSD yoga. The court is not determining if this is educationally sound, that is up to the district. The court finds that EUSD passes muster….

Assuming the court’s analysis of the facts is correct, and that only the exercise aspects of yoga are taught, without any religious component, then the legal conclusion seems quite sound. (I realize the court said at the beginning, “The court determines yoga is religious,” but I read the rest of the court’s analysis as concluding that yoga as taught in the school district omits that religious component.) Thanks to Howard Friedman (Religion Clause) for the pointer.

UPDATE: Note that, though the initial Complaint in the case did indeed focus on state law (as the L.A. Times article reports), the court decision was — as stated by the court — limited to the First Amendment issue; I assume there was some change in the theory of the case before the court decision.