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Is Yoga Instruction Religious? San Diego Court Case May Decide

By: for Religion News Services on June 28, 2013
World News
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SAN DIEGO (RNS) In an elementary school classroom with an American flag draped over one wall, a couple dozen students rose to standing positions. Then they shifted into poses called “volcano part one,” “silent gorilla,” and “rag doll.”

Some students may not realize it, but the semiweekly, half-hour course might be gone by the time they return in the fall.

In this upscale, seaside suburb just north of San Diego, parents have filed a lawsuit arguing the Encinitas Union School District should do away with the yoga elective because the discipline is inherently religious, and the teaching of it in the public schools violates the First Amendment.

The trial resumes this week in San Diego Superior Court and a decision could come as early as Wednesday (June 26).

This “represents the clearest case I have observed of the government advancing, endorsing, or promoting religion,” said Dean Broyles, president of the National Center for Law and Policy, a nonprofit based in Escondido, Calif., dedicated to defending religious freedom, traditional marriage and the sanctity of life.

“In America we do not allow the government to pick religious winners and losers, especially when you have a captive audience of very young and impressionable children as we do in our public schools,” he said.

Broyles represents the plaintiffs, Stephen and Jennifer Sedlock, whose child attends El Camino Creek Elementary School in Carlsbad, Calif., which is part of the Encinitas Union School District.

School district leaders say they have tried to accommodate the dozens of parents who are disturbed by the new schedule, ridding the yoga courses of any elements that could be construed as religious. Teachers, for example, do not instruct the children to chant or place their hands in prayer position.

Still, the court battle has divided the community. Some children have been teased for opting out of the elective and told by classmates that “they and their parents were ‘stupid’ for believing that the yoga program was religious,” according to the lawsuit.

Mary Eady has not to allowed her son, who attends one of the schools in the district, to take the elective because of her Christian beliefs.

“They are seeking to shape the way that the children view and interact with the world,” Eady said.

Parents against the program argue yoga should be an after-school option.

Timothy Baird, the district’s superintendent, said all students, whether or not they opt out of the program, receive the mandatory amount of physical education instruction.

Inside the courtroom, tensions run high. Candy Gunther Brown, a religious studies professor at Indian University Bloomington and the plaintiffs’ expert witness, argued that religion includes not only theistic beliefs, but also bodily practices.

But David A. Peck, a lawyer with Coast Law Group LLP, a firm based in Encinitas, said “the folks who are against the yoga program are conspiracy theorists.”

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