“Ohmmm” my goodness: Yoga and religion in public schools
2013 03 01

By Amy E. Feldman | Constitution Daily


The Encinitas Union School District near San Diego has been hit with a lawsuit that claims the school district violates the students’ religious freedom. How? It provides yoga classes to elementary school students.

The physical education program is funded by a nonprofit organization that trains students in Ashtanga yoga, which comprises both the physical fitness aspects of yoga along with breathing practices, stress management techniques, and other life skills. Those principles, the plaintiff argues, have roots in Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, and metaphysical beliefs that are inherently religious and, as a result, violate the public school’s duty to maintain a separation between church and state.

Many people are confused. There is no Church of Yoga. How can teaching yoga in school violate the Constitution?

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states in part: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Similarly, the California Constitution forbids any public funding of religious instruction and guarantees that “free exercise and enjoyment of religion without discrimination or preference.”

But before determining if the public school is, through its program, establishing religion, it would be helpful to understand the definition of a “religion.”

While the lawsuit is based on religious freedom under the California state constitution, the U.S. Supreme Court has taken up the matter of what qualifies as a religion on many occasions, and their decisions shed light on the yoga case.

In the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which, among other prohibitions, prevents discrimination on the basis of religion, Congress defined religion as “a belief [that] must be sincerely held, and within the believer’s own scheme of things religious.” But the use of the word “religious” to define religion is not very helpful.

For further clarification, we turn to the Supreme Court, whose definition of a “religion” has (ironically enough) evolved over time. When the Supreme Court first took up the task of defining religion in 1890 in Davis v. Beason, it stated: “The term ‘religion’ has reference to one’s views of his relations to his Creator, and to the obligations they impose of reverence for his being and character and of obedience to his will.” In other words, to be a religion, there must be a belief in God and the practice of worship.

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Read the full article at: constitutioncenter.org



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