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School Sued for Banning Yoga

A Georgia trial pits school yoga and mindfulness against Christianity.

The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that public schools may not endorse Christian practices such as prayer, Bible reading, and creationism. But so far, increasingly popular school yoga and mindfulness programs have gotten a legal pass—despite historic and ongoing religious ties to Hinduism, Buddhism, and other spiritual traditions.

In March 2019, a federal judge in Georgia sent a school yoga dispute to jury trial slated next fall. The lawsuit is not over teaching religious yoga but favoring Christianity by banning yoga.

Georgia is usually not the first state to come to mind when thinking about yoga—that distinction probably goes to California. Yet many metro-Atlanta public schools also teach yoga. The Atlanta Yoga Movement, led by Cheryl Crawford, has led the way. It would be a stretch to call Crawford’s program “secular.” Crawford says teaching yoga is a “sacred obligation” to “lead” kids “back to ‘Self-hood’” (note the capital “S,” often used to imply that the true Self is Divine). Yoga poses “correspond to the seven major energy centers in the body called Chakras” (a mystical concept of more-than-physical “energy”). Mindfulness lessons fuse Dr. Seuss with “yoga sutras” (moral and ethical aphorisms that many modern American yoga teachers give scriptural status).

In 2014, assistant principal Bonnie Cole of Bullard Elementary, Cobb County School District, Kennesaw, Georgia, introduced yoga and mindfulness. Kids folded hands in prayer position in front of their hearts while saying Namaste (Sanskrit translated “the Divine in me bows to the Divine in you”) and colored mandalas (circular pictures considered sacred by many).

Reforming Secular Education or Reestablishing Religion? (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019), 142. Photograph by author.
Parents protesting school yoga
Source: Candy Gunther Brown, Debating Yoga and Mindfulness in Public Schools: Reforming Secular Education or Reestablishing Religion? (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019), 142. Photograph by author.

Parents complained of religious coercion. Principal Patrice Moore removed praying hands, Namaste, and mandalas but retained the program. Parents were unconvinced that subtracting a few religious symbols “secularized” yoga. The controversy became so heated that the district transferred Cole to another school to restore order.

Georgia’s yoga challenge is unique. Parents did not sue the school for violating the Establishment Clause by endorsing religion through yoga—which happened in 2013 when a California district ignored complaints. Neither did the school argue that yoga is religious—which happened in 2016 when a Pennsylvania district blocked a yoga-based charter school.

Cole is suing the district for “capitulating” to religious objections of Christian parents. Cole, who insists she is Christian, accuses the school of hypocritically allowing Christians to pray and e-mail Bible verses while failing to support yoga.

Cole’s legal strategy is a classic example of the tu quoque (“you too”) logical fallacy, in which someone implicitly admits fault by accusing others of the same fault. Charging the school with hypocrisy is a diversionary tactic that distracts from the initial problem of whether Cole’s yoga has the effect of coercing or endorsing religious practices. Cole took the internally inconsistent position of arguing both that yoga is non-religious and that “denying all children in the school access to yoga” advances a competing “religious cause.” Why should opposing yoga be a religious cause if yoga is not religious?

At issue are state actions that impermissibly endorse religion. Suppose the school is hypocritical and does endorse Christianity, which motivated it to stop endorsing yoga. If the school endorsed prayer and Bible reading, that can be litigated separately. If the school acted to disestablish yoga and mindfulness because these practices are entangled with religion, then the school was legally justified, regardless of motives.

The more legally interesting and novel question is the yoga and mindfulness program’s constitutionality. To defend itself against charges of being religiously motivated in transferring Cole, the school backed into the corner of arguing that its program was non-religious—the very question at stake. Both plaintiff and defendant strategies beg the question of why parents raised an “uproar”—because yoga and mindfulness are religiously divisive.

Lost from the conversation is the voice of parents and children for whom state-sponsored yoga and mindfulness violate freedom of conscience. The tendency of schools and courts to dismiss religious objections to yoga and mindfulness as irrational rests on several widely shared, logically insufficient, assumptions. 1) School yoga and mindfulness programs have all been “secularized”—or else they would not be taught in schools. 2) Evidence of benefits to health and education is the same thing as evidence of secularity. 3) Christian yoga promoters would not support yoga if it was in tension with Christianity.

Cole and the school district may believe that yoga and mindfulness are beneficial, secular, and complementary to Christianity. But this does not remove legal and ethical needs for cultural and religious sensitivity to children and parents who interpret the program as religiously coercive.

Research lends support to parental concerns. There is evidence that participants in nominally secular yoga and mindfulness are more likely to report spiritual experiences and to change religious beliefs and affiliations the longer and more often they practice.

But even if school programs produce no measurable religious effects, the Supreme Court has stricter standards. Schools cannot constitutionally coerce or endorse religious practice. Even voluntary religious programs from which students can “opt out” are coercive, given the power of mandatory attendance, teacher authority, and peer pressure. As the Supreme Court ruled in Edwards v. Aguillard (1987)—against Christian-motivated school creationism—nowhere than in the public schools is it more “vital to keep out divisive forces.”

The Georgia controversy invites questioning of the assumption that school yoga and mindfulness have been fully secularized. Ironically, Christian practices are once again on trial instead.

For related posts, see The Washington Post, Religion Dispatches, and The Conversation.

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