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Court Upholds District’s Yoga Program

  • Vol. 2015, No. 6
  • April 30, 2015

Vol. 2015,No. 6 | April 30, 2015

Sedlock v. Baird, 14 C.D.O.S. 3394 (April 3, 2015)

Local educational agencies have the authority to create instructional programming that is based on religious practice without violating California’s constitutional ban on the establishment of religion, provided the instructional program has a secular purpose, neither advances nor inhibits religion, and does not excessively entangle the agency with the religion.

Background

In the 2010-2011 school year, the KP Jois Foundation (Foundation) funded a yoga program at a local elementary school in the Encinitas Union School District (District).  Satisfied with the development of this program, the District collaborated with the Foundation to launch a comprehensive yoga instruction program for other district schools, starting in the 2012-2013 school year.

Shortly after the implementation of this program, the District began to receive parent complaints that the yoga program violated their religious freedoms.  The District responded by revising the yoga curriculum to be free of religious references-visual depictions of religious yoga practice (e.g., a poster of an Ashtanga tree, postcards from India, etc.) and the use of the Sanskrit language, and guided meditation scripts were also removed.  Additionally, yoga poses were renamed to be child-friendly and to mitigate the perception of religious affiliation (e.g., the “lotus” position was renamed as “criss-cross applesauce,” etc.).

Dissatisfied with these modifications, in February 2013, parents filed an action against the District and other parties alleging that the District’s implementation of its yoga program violated the religious freedom provisions of the California Constitution.  The trial court entered judgment in favor of the District, after which the parents appealed.

Decision

The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s judgment.  The Court applied the three-factor “Lemon test” to find that the District’s yoga program did not constitute an unlawful establishment of religion in public schools.  First, the District had a “secular legislative purpose” for implementing the yoga program-to promote the physical and mental well-being of its students.  Second, the District’s yoga program did not have the “primary effect” of either advancing or inhibiting religion-all religious references had already been removed from the yoga curriculum such that a reasonable observer would understand the yoga curriculum to be non-religious.  Further, yoga exercises and breathing techniques are not inherently religious and tend to be practiced in the United States without any connection to religion.  And third, the District’s yoga program did not excessively entangle the District with religion-neither the District’s exercise of control over its yoga teachers and the yoga curriculum nor its acceptance of outside funding to pay for the program was enough to show excessive entanglement.  For these reasons, the Court found the District’s yoga program to be constitutional.

Impact

This decision provides some clarity regarding the extent of a school district’s ability to modify its curriculum without running afoul of the California establishment clause, and application of the “Lemon test” in such cases.  The establishment clause prohibits public entities from “respecting an establishment of religion,” meaning that public entities cannot promote any particular religion or proselytize.  This case illustrates that school districts have some discretion to adopt a school curriculum that may share consistencies with some aspects of religious practice (e.g., physical exercises, breathing exercises, etc.) without it actually constituting an endorsement of religion.  However, to survive scrutiny under the Lemon Test, school districts need to take special precautions, including removing any religious references from potentially objectionable curricula.

To discuss the case of Sedlock v. Baird further, or if you have any questions, please contact a DWK attorney.

PRACTICE AREAS
  • Students and Special Education

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