UPDATE: Yoga Okay for Public Schools

When is a school prayer not a prayer?  According to Superior Court Judge John Meyer, once the “lotus” position has been transformed into “crisscross applesauce.”

As historian Natalia Mehlman Petrzela argued in these pages months ago, the fight in Encinitas, California over the teaching of yoga in public schools flipped some culture-war themes on their heads.  In this battle, conservative Christian parents fought against the use of religion in public schools.

Spearheaded by the National Center for Law and Policy, a conservative activist organization, Christian parents complained that teaching yoga amounted to promotion of a set of religious notions.

Judge Meyer ruled yesterday that the school district had stripped the yoga routine of its religious nature.  An objective observer, Meyer decided, would not perceive the practice as religious.  The program had been funded by a half-million-dollar grant from the Jois Foundation.  The judge found this entanglement “troublesome,” but not enough so to abandon the health program.

This kerfuffle resurrects some old school-prayer controversies in new ways.  First of all, does this case reveal a bias against Christian prayer?  That was the complaint of Dean Broyles of the National Center for Law and Policy.  As Gary Warth of the San Diego Union-Tribune reported, Broyles claimed, “If [the school practice] were Christian-based and other parents complained, it would be out of schools. There is a consistent anti-Christian bias in cases like this that involve schools.”  Could a case be made that non-Abrahamic religious traditions get more leeway in public schools?

Also, does this case open the door for a new spate of school-prayer policies?  In the early 1960s, the US Supreme Court ruled in Engel v. Vitale that school-sponsored prayers violated the Constitution.  The prayer in that case, however, had been composed by the State of New York as a broadly ecumenical prayer, one thought to offend no one.  Could this precedent open the door to a new sort of ecumenical school prayer?  A secular prayer?  If religious groups could argue the health benefits of a prayer and find a prayer practice sufficiently stripped of sectarian meaning, could Judge Meyer’s argument apply here?

Of course, as I’ve noted elsewhere about the Engel v. Vitale case, most evangelical Protestants supported the SCOTUS decision to ban a bland ecumenical prayer.  Would any conservative religious people want to include a prayer in public schools if that prayer had been secularized?  If Jesus on a cross had been transformed to “crisscross applesauce?”


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  1. I’m so glad you’re following this story at ILYBYGTH. Based on the events in the past few days, it seems an appeal of the ruling is likely, so I hope our discussion will continue. I agree with the salience of the questions you raise above, and offer an additional perspective: what does this controversy tell us about the changing terms of the culture wars in the 21st century? I’ve argued here (in the piece you reference) that wellness will be a new frontier in the culture wars, but I think the terms of the debate here also raises new issues about the place of religion and spirituality in American life.

    As we saw in Broyles’ initial complaint about the yoga program, he used the same line of argument conservatives have been using since the 1980s – that conservatives (Christians, in this case) were an aggrieved minority being excluded by a liberal educational establishment. This, of course, was a rhetorical strategy adopted from the 1960s left. What is different in this particular case is that in other instances (see the famous Mozert case, for example, or countless sex ed battles) the offending liberal faith was “secular humanism,” which the Christian Right (somewhat understandably, I have always thought) argued was simply a different belief system akin to their own Biblically-literalist way of seeing the world. Their frustration was that the very same liberals who were sensitive to issues of inclusion and diversity around race and gender seemed to be intolerant of any other viewpoint in the schoolhouse except “secular humanism.” These issues flared around science instruction, sex ed, literacy, social studies…

    Now, even though Judge Meyer has ruled that there isn’t anything patently religious about the yoga program practiced in the EUSD, and even though a yoga curriculum seems to fit in with our cultural stereotypes of liberal affinities, I think the yoga situation is of a *slightly* different order. The particular EUSD curriculum aside, yoga DOES have a deeply (arguably inherently?) spiritual aspects, and it is very common for people to practice yoga to meet spiritual goals, or at least to meet goals that extend far beyond the realm of the physical. The White House said recently that “yoga is a universal language of spiritual exercise,” (a claim which got shockingly little pickup in the US, but that’s another blog I never found the time to write!), a claim which I think rings true for a certain stratum of American society – the one Obama is criticized often by people such as Dean Broyles for uniquely representing (coastal, liberal, urban…).

    The reason why this is notable is that the so-called “liberal educational establishment” which has been the enemy of so many conservative initiatives such as those listed above might *not* actually be defined by the “secular humanism” which so long was its calling card, but by a new spirituality, of which yoga is one core manifestation. While the “SBNR” movement (spiritual but not religious) is certainly not a unified faith in the way organized religions are, I think it is pretty clear that some of its philosophies and practices would be offensive to conservative Christians.

    Anyway, my two cents on this holiday weekend – I plead family-vacation insanity as the reason for typos, etc.

  2. and I thought “crisscross applesauce” was an alternative to the patently racist “sitting Indian-style!” Didn’t know it was about lotus pose…

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