A California family is suing the Encinitas Unified School District (EUSD) for allowing religion-infused yoga classes as part of its physical education program.
Stephen and Jennifer Sedlock are upset about the twice-weekly, 30-minute yoga classes funded by a $533,000 three-year grant from the Jois Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes Astanga yoga. They are represented by the National Center for Law and Policy, which claims the classes violate the separation of church and state.
"EUSD's Ashtanga yoga program represents a serious breach of the public trust," said attorney Dean Broyles. "Compliance with the clear requirements of law is not optional or discretionary. This is frankly the clearest case of the state trampling on the religious freedom rights of citizens that I have personally witnessed in my 18 years of practice as a constitutional attorney."
The Sedlocks’ children, who attend the school district, said they felt bullied and harassed for opting out of the program, and their parents are concerned they are missing 60 of the 100 weekly minutes of physical activity required by the state. Broyles said that while the lawsuit only names one family, dozens of parents also feel the same way and oppose the program.
The Sedlocks decided to take legal action after the district refused to take their complaints into account, Broyles said. They are not seeking monetary damages, but are asking the court to intervene and stop the program.
Superintendent Timothy B. Baird said that since the district started the classes at nine of its schools in January, teachers and parents say students are calmer and using breathing practices to release stress before tests. He claims the classes are solely exercise: “We’re not teaching religion. We teach a very mainstream physical fitness program that happens to incorporate yoga into it.”
But on the Jois Foundation website, the group clearly described its goal in promoting Ashtanga yoga, an eightfold path to reach “liberation and greater awareness of our spiritual potential.” An integral part of Hindu tradition, the physical exercise of yoga is just one step or limb of the path which includes self-restraint, religious observances, withdrawal of sense, meditation, and ultimately enlightenment. But yoga “is the most important for us to practice, and through it we can understand the other limbs,” the site said.
Broyles believes the program violates California’s laws prohibiting government religious preference and religious discrimination, prohibiting use of state resources to support religion, and forbidding the use of government resources to promote religion in public schools.
“EUSD’s Ashtanga yoga program represents a prime example of precisely why in America we wisely forbid the government from picking religious winners and losers, especially when you have a captive audience of very young and impressionable children as we do in our public schools,” Broyles said.