Judge goes to mat for yoga, rules it’s irreligious

In this Dec. 11, 2012 file photo, students hold their position during a yoga class at Capri Elementary School in Encinitas, Calif. A San Diego County judge has ruled that the Encinitas Union School District was not  teaching religion by offering yoga classes. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)
In this Dec. 11, 2012 file photo, students hold their position during a yoga class at Capri Elementary School in Encinitas, Calif. A San Diego County judge has ruled that the Encinitas Union School District was not teaching religion by offering yoga classes. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)

SAN DIEGO (AP) — A California judge has ruled that it’s a real stretch to suggest yoga is always religious.

Superior Court Judge John S. Meyer rejected the pleas of parents from a San Diego County school district where yoga is taught on nine campuses who said the classes are inherently religious and violate the constitutional principle of separating church and state.

Meyer sided instead in the Monday ruling with administrators from the Encinitas Union School District who argued the practice while often religious is taught in a secular way to promote strength, flexibility and balance.

The judge said parents who objected relied on personal opinions, some culled from Internet searches.

“It’s almost like a trial by Wikipedia, which isn’t what this court does,” said Meyer, who took nearly two hours to explain a decision that explored yoga’s Indian roots and philosophy.

The judge emphasized that the school district stripped classes of all cultural references, including the Sanskrit language. The lotus position was renamed the “crisscross applesauce” pose.

Dean Broyles, an attorney for Encinitas parents Stephen and Jennifer Sedlock, said he would likely appeal.

“It was the judge’s job to call balls and strikes and determine the facts,” Broyles said. “I think he got some of the facts wrong.”

The district is believed to be the first in the country to have full-time yoga teachers at every one of its nine schools. The lessons are funded by a $533,720, three-year grant from the K.P. Jois Foundation, a nonprofit group based in Encinitas that promotes Ashtanga yoga.

The twice-weekly, 30-minute classes are offered along with more traditional physical education to the district’s 5,600 students.

About 30 families have opted out of the classes, which were introduced in 2011 at one campus and later expanded to others, Superintendent Timothy Baird said. The superintendent hailed the ruling, calling yoga “21st century P.E.” that yielded “amazing” health benefits.

The judge said the Jois Foundation’s involvement was troubling, but rejected parents’ arguments that it amounted to a stealth attempt to guide students to Eastern religion. The foundation insists that the classes are not religious.

The lawsuit did not seek monetary damages but asked the court to intervene and suspend the program.

The plaintiffs relied heavily on testimony of Candy Gunther Brown, an Indiana University religious studies professor who found the district’s program is pervasively religious, having its roots in Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist and metaphysical beliefs and practices.

Yoga is now taught at public schools from the rural mountains of West Virginia to the bustling streets of Brooklyn as a way to ease stress for tense students. But most classes are part of an after-school program, or are offered only at a few schools or by some teachers in a district.

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