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?”