Yoga in public schools latest test of free speech

Scott Bomboy

Should yoga sessions in public schools be subject to the same restrictions as religious ceremonies? A group of 60 Southern California parents thinks so–they want to pull yoga out of their school district’s curriculum.

The yoga controversy is the latest twist on the contentious issue of anything having to do with religion in schools funded by taxpayer dollars.

In this case, a lawyer for the parents says yoga has ties to Hinduism and that there is no place for it in the Encinitas Union School District.

“There’s a deep concern that the Encinitas Union School District is using taxpayer resources to promote Ashtanga yoga and Hinduism, a religion system of beliefs and practices,” their attorney, Dean Broyles, told the North County Times, a regional newspaper.

The district has classes in nine schools and is reportedly set to receive a $500,000 grant from an Ashtanga yoga institute to expand the classes. Its superintendent has said he doesn’t plan to stop the classes.

Broyles told ABC News that Ashtanga yoga is indeed a religious practice.

“The poses and positions are acknowledged by Ashtanga and Hindi yoga as forms of worship and prayers to Hindu deities,” he told ABC. “They have a spiritual and religious meaning behind them.”

Broyles said after doing his own research, he’s convinced Ashtanga yoga in public schools is a constitutional issue.

“We think that children are being used as guinea pigs,” he told ABC. “It would be like a charismatic Christian organization funding classes in worship and praise.”

The yoga controversy comes after two other high-profile cases about religious expression at publicly funded schools.

In those cases in Texas and Tennessee, the debate is over Christian prayer and Christian slogans at a prominent university and a local high school.

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which promotes separation of church and state, is involved in both situations.

In Texas, a group of high school cheerleaders won the latest legal skirmish over their display of religious slogans on banners used at football games.

A judge has agreed with the students that the slogans were an individual expression of private free speech. That case is headed to trial next year after the students won an injunction.

Constitution Daily contributor Lyle Denniston said in his case analysis for us earlier this week that the judge’s focus was on the application of free speech principles, not religion.

“It was not decisive, for this judge, that the message is, in fact, only a Christian one. It thus is up to the cheerleaders to choose, or not, to vary the message so that it reflects religious tolerance as well as religious freedom. That is a civics lesson, even if not one required by the Constitution,” he said.

The other high-profile case involves the University of Tennessee at Knoxville football program, which has traditionally invoked a public prayer in its stadium before football games.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation said some alumni complained about the tradition, and were upset that the name of Jesus Christ was used during the prayers. It asked the school to stop the practice.

In September, another school in the state system, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said it would use a moment of silence at games, in response to a similar complaint from the foundation.

The University of Tennessee at Knoxville is continuing with non-sectarian prayers at the games.

In its dialogue with the university, Freedom From Religion Foundation cited 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 vs. Schempp from 1963 (which halted the reading of Bible passages in public schools).

The school said there was nothing wrong with a pre-kickoff invocation.