Is doing yoga at a public school really unconstitutional?

National Constitution Center

A California family and a legal group are suing a public school district for allowing yoga instructors to teach students, saying the practice causes a constitutional conflict.

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For now, the National Center for Law & Policy says the policy at the Encinitas Union School District near San Diego violates three provisions of California’s state constitution, including one provision about “prohibiting government religious preference and religious discrimination.”

The lawsuit, filed in San Diego Superior Court, touches on broader issues about religious expression at publicly funded schools.

Dean Broyles from the NCLP is representing the family of two young students in the Encinitas Union School District.

“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,” Broyles said in a statement. “The program is extremely divisive and has unfortunately led to the harassment, discrimination, bullying, and segregation of children who, for good reasons, opt out of the program.”

Constitution Daily first reported on this story in October 2012, when Broyles and the school district were discussing his complaints about a program, funded by an Ashtanga yoga institute, which was approved for schools. At the time, the school district said it didn’t plan to stop the program.

The program was not after hours; the yoga sessions were part of the school’s curriculum.

Broyles now contends that Ashtanga yoga is “inherently and pervasively religious.” He is seeking to have an injunction issued to stop the program and isn’t seeking monetary damages.

Encinitas Superintendent Timothy Baird told ABC News this week that students are only doing some Ashtanga poses and that the sessions are a “typical P.E. class.”

“I believe what he is saying is just the motions of the yoga stretching is somehow invoking Hinduism–and in America, where 90 to 95 percent of the practitioners are not even Hindu,” Baird said.

The First Amendment argument over religious expression at public facilities dates back to the early 1900s.

Three recent Supreme Court decisions about religious expression at public facilities include the historic Santa Fe v. Jane Doe decision in 2000 that barred prayers at high school football games; the County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union case from 1989, which barred nativity scenes from a courthouse; and Abington v. Schempp from 1963, which halted the reading of Bible passages in public schools).

Another case, Lemon v. Kurtzman from 1971, established that a government’s action can’t have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion, and any such action would violate the Constitution’s Establishment Clause.

For now, the Encinitas Union case is in California’s court system, though it remains to be seen how far it will advance.

One long-term ramification could be the case’s impact on yoga as a widespread program taught at schools around the country. Encinitas Union is believed to be one of the first public school systems to hire full-time yoga instructors at all of its schools.

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