A case pending in San Diego Superior Court questions the constitutionality of an Ashtanga yoga program provided to students at the Encinitas Union School District. In Sedlock et al v. Baird et al, parents Stephen and Jennifer Sedlock allege that the Ashtanga yoga program is inherently and pervasively religious, having roots in western metaphysical, Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist religious beliefs and practices. The Sedlocks seek an order from the Court to stop the teaching of yoga by the District.
The controversy began after the District was awarded a grant by the Jois Foundation to develop curriculum and provide instruction to District students in yoga, organic farming and gardening, character education, culinary arts and food preparation. In the developing the Ashtanga yoga program, the District initially used some references to the cultural roots of yoga, but eventually removed all Sanskrit words and cultural references. There were no references to underlying beliefs or meaning. Many of the traditional names of yoga poses were changed to common references such as Mountain, Surfer, Cat, and Cow. Students do not chant or hum during the yoga classes, and only the English language is used. The focus of the program is strength, flexibility, balance, and breathing. There is also a component to the program that encourages good character. The District allows students to opt out of yoga practice.
There are three provisions of the California Constitution at issue in this case. The California Constitution prohibits the government from making any law giving preference to or respecting the establishment of religion. (Cal. Const. Art. I, section 4.) In addition, the government cannot provide funding in aid of any religion. (Cal. Const. Art. I, section 5.) Finally, the California Constitution prohibits religious instruction in public schools. (Cal. Const. Art. I, section 8.)
The California Supreme Court applies the U.S. Supreme Court’s Lemon test [Lemon v Kurtzman, 403 US 602 (1971)] to determine whether a government program is an illegal preference of religion. The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that excessive government entanglement will invoke a constitutional challenge. To survive scrutiny by the Lemon test, a government program must have a secular purpose, cannot either advance or inhibit religion, and the program must not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion. The parents argue that the Ashtanga yoga program violates the Lemon test, because it supports and funds religion in violation of the Constitution. The District argues that the program passes scrutiny under the Lemon test: the program’s purpose is to advance student health and well-being, and neither advances nor inhibits religion. The District also argues that the yoga program does not foster any entanglement with religion.
There is no binding authority from any court regarding the teaching of yoga, but there is one lower court case from New York where a court, applying the Lemon test, found no violation of either the New York or U.S. Constitution where a Sikh minister taught yoga to students in a public school. In the Encinitas situation, there are no ministers leading yoga classes. The trial is scheduled to resume later this month.