“There’s content even in the movement”: Yoga in California Schools

A case arose recently in the San Diego Superior Court challenging the teaching of yoga classes to school children. In Sedlock vs. Timothy Baird Superintendent, some parents who claimed their children were being subjected to harassment, discrimination, and segregation based on their religious beliefs were suing the Encinitas school board on various grounds. The lawsuit was supported by the National Center for Law & Policy, a legal defence organization which focuses on, inter alia, the protection and promotion of religious freedom. The school board had reached an agreement with the Jois Foundation to receive a grant to fund the teaching of yoga at the district’s schools, and the programme was eventually rolled out to all of those schools.

The grounds of challenge to the school district’s actions boil down to the argument that the district was acting in breach of California law in using state resources to prefer and endorse Ashtanga yoga, which promotes religious beliefs, while disfavouring and discriminating against other religions. The charge was that Ashtanga yoga is a very religious form of yoga that promotes and advances religion, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Western metaphysics. In fact, most of the petition, aided by the expert intervention of an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University, Candy Gunther Brown, claimed that yoga practices were associated most closely with Hinduism. Judge John S. Meyer, who heard the case, ruled on 1 July 2013 that Brown’s evidence was biased, that the yoga classes being taught had the secular purpose of promoting health and welfare, that an objective child would not perceive that religion was being promoted in the teaching of yoga, and that the school district had complete control over the classes and could take action if warranted.

The main legal instruments relied upon by the petitioners were parts of California law including its constitution and legislation on schooling. As Judge Meyer observed, the kernel of the dispute revolved around the first amendment of the United States constitution. Although the first amendment to the US constitution was not directly relied upon by the petitioners, the judge’s reference to it might have been a shorthand way of pointing to a very similar provision within Article 1, § 4 of the California Constitution which reads in part: ‘Free exercise and enjoyment of religion without discrimination or preference are guaranteed…. The Legislature shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion….’. Other provisions in California’s Constitution back these up. Thus, among the other provisions relied on were the constitutional prohibition on public money being spent on the teaching of any sectarian or any denominational doctrine being taught in state schools (Article 9, §8), and the prohibition on any school board granting anything in aid of any religious sect, church, creed, or sectarian purpose (Article 16, § 5).

The case under discussion calls into question the appropriateness of the legal framework of US law and California law, which enables a claim such as the one in Sedlock to be brought. The relevant parts of US and California law summarized above evidently enable claims to be brought where there is state support for religious activity, specifically, in the state school system and where there is interference with the freedom of religion. In fact, these two strands are intimately connected. Although they are ostensibly premised on preventing the link between religion and state, the remarkable fact, often overlooked, is that the very basis of this kind of law is of Protestant Christian, and thus religious, origin. In fact, the idea of a wall of separation between church and state and the freedom of religion make no sense outside of that framework.

As Jakob de Roover and S.N. Balagangadhara have shown, the Jeffersonian vision of the wall of separation and religious freedom was instrumental in the crafting of the first amendment to the US Constitution. They also show that these concepts referred back to the Protestant Christian idea of the two spheres of human existence. The theology of Christian liberty spoke about the division of human life and society into spiritual and temporal realms, which corresponds to the understanding in Christian anthropology that each individual human being consists of a soul and a body. Government over the body is the sphere of political coercion, while government over the soul is the realm religious liberty, to do with the individual and God alone. In fact, the same backdrop finds expression in Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights as the freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Europeans are, however, more ambiguous about this norm because the Protestant account has infiltrated into European legal systems in much more diverse forms, partly because the Reformation culminated in a more varied set of Church-state arrangements. An illustration of the diversity of views is provided by the divergent results in the various stages of the Lautsi case. US law has a strong Protestant anti-establishmentarian underpinning however.

The freedom of religion that this Protestant framework assumed was, as noted, underpinned by the necessity of preventing interference in the relationship of God and the individual soul. The Protestant critique of Catholicism had brought this problem out quite sharply because, argued Protestants, worship could not be true given the intercession of priests who gave human direction in matters of worship that should concern only the individual soul. The complaining parents in Sedlock could therefore, consistently with this framework, assert through the applicable legal provisions that the involvement of a secular, human authority in matters of conscience ipso facto interfered with the freedom of religion of their children. Of course, here they argued that the Hindu beliefs, which were expressed by the yoga postures and practices being taught, were what created the interference in the freedom of religion of the children whose parents removed them from the classes. There is a lurking accusation here, not fully expressed, that the practices were objectionable because they were Hindu and therefore expressive of what, from a Christian perspective, is a false religion. In keeping with contemporary secularized discourse this is never fully articulated as a problem although, if the parents were consistent in their avowed beliefs as Christians, they would consider Hindu practices as embodiments of false beliefs and yoga as a form of false worship. As Balagangadhara shows in The Heathen in his Blindness, this conforms to a pattern set in train within religious cultures whereby belief is attributed to practices, and practices are seen as enacting beliefs. As one of the objecting parents is quoted as having said, “There’s content even in the movement, just as with baptism there’s content in the movement”. In fact, the parents need not even say as much because the legal framework which they invoke already caters to the problem of false worship.

The options for the judge were then to hold that the yoga classes violated the applicable legal framework or to hold, as he did, that the practices taught in the classes were secular. This calls into question the role that the secular has performed within the theological framework of Christianity. Many people have come to think the secular can be a neutral space for co-existence within a plural society. Such a construal misses the theological underpinning of the ‘secular’. In The Heathen in his Blindness, Balagangadhara further shows how the distinction between the religious and secular is drawn by and within a religion. Within such a theological framework, the secular is a zone where practices of a false religion, cleansed of its idolatrous practices, are assigned as an alternative to assigning it to the place of true religion. Perhaps those enunciating ‘Christian yoga’ are engaged in doing the latter, as Rajiv Malhotra’s discussion of the trend indicates. That is, they are engaged in purifying it for Christians to adopt as a religious practice. Judge Meyer in Sedlock appears to have done the former, ostensibly persuaded by the carefully calculated arguments submitted by the defendants that the yoga classes had had the cultural and religious elements removed from them, with the names for various asanas having been substituted with other terms, and Sanskrit terms and mantras having been dropped.

Bearing in mind that the framework of state-church separation and freedom of religion in the United States, and elsewhere, is underpinned by a Christian theological framework helps to sharpen our focus on how disputes on religion are being handled. A more sustained discussion of the necessity of judges in the US having to do a form of Protestant theology when deciding religious freedom cases is provided by Winnifred Fallers Sullivan. The Sedlock case provides one example of what occurs when Christian lenses are applied to read practices from the pagan world. Such practices also appear to get altered in the process of their secularization because some marks of idolatry have to be removed to make them conform to the demands of secular-religious law. Currently, we have no definite answers on how we can get beyond such conceptually and theoretically constricted legal structures. But questions are certainly begged about the propriety of the imposition of a Christian anthropological framework in light of the fact that multiple cultural groups inhabit Euro-American societies and not all such groups find that framework intelligible.

Meanwhile, we have probably not heard the last of yoga in California schools as the petitioners plan to appeal Judge Meyer’s ruling.

Prakash Shah.

This entry was posted in anti-discrimination law, Christianity, Hindus, S.N. Balagangadhara and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to “There’s content even in the movement”: Yoga in California Schools

  1. Ramnik Shah says:

    Isn`t there some domestic jurisprudence that may have a bearing on the subject here in England? I was thinking of that case in Leicester (?) of a few years ago where the legality of the practice of open air funeral pyres of Hindus was in issue.

  2. Pingback: Is Yoga Hindu? - My Blog

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