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School Yoga Classes Not Religious, Judge Says

July 2, 2013 1:26 p.m.

GUESTS:

Kyla Calvert, KPBS Education Reporter

Eugene Ruffin, Ex. Director, KP Jois Foundation

David Loy, Legal Director, ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties

Related Story: School Yoga Classes Not Religious, Judge Says

Transcript:

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Students in the Encinitas Union School District will be allowed to continue assuming the lotus pose in exercise class, or its new non-Sanskrit name of crisscross apple sauce! Parents of a student of a Christian group sued the school saying they were religious. A judge found that yoga is a religious practice, but not the way it's taught in the North County school district. My guests are Kyla Calvert, KPBS education reporter, welcome to the show.

CALVERT: Happy to be here.

CAVANAUGH: David Loy is legal director of the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties. We contacted officials with the Encinitas school district for an interview, they were not available. We contacted the plaintiff's attorney he did not return our calls. Why did the Encinitas school district decide to include yoga in classes in the first place?

CALVERT: Well, one of the schools in the district had yoga classes last year. I think the district was happy with that, and they approached the Joyce Foundation who gave a grant to roll the classes out to other schools this year about doing something like that. I know that yesterday in the judge's decision he talked about the superintendents' concern over traditional PE classes and how the benefits of traditional PE might fall more heavily on students who are athletic, students who are more popular, things like that, and that those things aren't really present in a yoga class.

CAVANAUGH: So the school wanted to do it for physical fitness. Was there always an opt-out option?

CALVERT: Yes. And even left year when the program was just at one school, there were parents who opted their children out.

CAVANAUGH: The judge ruled that while yoga has religious roots, the classes being taught were not religious. Were there some changes being made?

CALVERT: Yeah, they renamed the poses, so they're not using the Sanskrit names from traditional yoga. They've taken out things like if you go to a yoga class in a studio in San Diego, maybe at some point in the class, you'll take a deep breath along with all the other people in the class and chant om together. They don't do that. They don't say namaste at the end of the class, which is something you might do in a studio elsewhere in San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: Are all of the poses -- have most of the poses' names been changed in the class?

CALVERT: I believe so, yes. They have all been given English names like pancake and butterfly and toad and things like that.

CAVANAUGH: I see. Joining us on the phone is Eugene Ruffin, consecutive director of the KP Joyce Foundation. Thank you so much for joining us.

RUFFIN: You're welcome.

CAVANAUGH: Are you comfortable with the judge's finding that Ashtanga yoga is a religious practice for some people?

RUFFIN: Well, it's hard for me to participate in the conversation on the judge's decision whether there's a religious aspect to yoga. We're excited about the district continuing the classes.

CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you this way. Ashtanga yoga has been used as an exercise and a spiritual practice; is that correct?

RUFFIN: I would think that's the case. That's what I've heard. But not being astutely enough in the practice or a theologian, it would be difficult for me to respond. I actually believe that in this country, the emphasis on exercise is predominant. And the spiritual content is minimal or lessened versus what might be in other countries. But that's not as an expert witness.

CAVANAUGH: Why is the Joyce Foundation interested in funding yoga classes in Encinitas in the Encinitas school district?

RUFFIN: Well, the founders of the foundation, the two founders, the Jones family headed by the ancestors of Sonia Jones, they simply wanted to give back to particularly underserved communities. So therefore they founded a foundation. The experiences of Sonia Jones, particularly, in yoga led her to believe that this would be a good practice for children. And she was thinking a way to provide children with this experience.

CAVANAUGH: Is there any follow-up -- any follow-up embedded in this program? Are you going to find out whether or not it's working in some way?

RUFFIN: Yeah, we've had tremendous success in terms of responses from USD unless that we're doing. We have supported a research component to the Encinitas school district demonstrations of health and wellness as it relates to this subject. So we will continue to do research wherever these demonstrations take place to make sure that they're beneficial to children and the delivery process is correct.

CAVANAUGH: Eugene, my last question, how long do you expect the Joyce Foundation is going to continue funding yoga classes in Encinitas schools?

RUFFIN: Well, I know is that we're going to continue this fund them for the 2013/14 year because we've already had discussions in how we're going to do that. So we're pretty clear on that. Now, the Joyce can have foundation has changed its name to the Saneema foundation, which is a combination of Sandra Jones and Sonia Ruffin, the founders. So we changed the name of the foundation to support what we're doing, which is essentially trying to develop in partnership or in support of school districts a health and wellness curriculum.

CAVANAUGH: Eugene Ruffin, the executive director of what used to be the KP Joyce can have foundation. Thank you so much for joining us. Now, David, let me get your take on the judge's decision in this case.

LOY: All I know is what I've read in the press. It appears that the judge took a very careful and thorough look at the precise facts of the case and decided that the way that the school district is presenting this program is completely devoid of any religious content, and therefore the school district is not violating any principles of separation of church and state or teaching or endorsing religion in any way because as I understand what the judge found, the district is simply teaching a physical fitness routine. Or a physical education routine using poses and stretching and breathing for purposes of promoting physical health and fitness which is a perfectly legitimate and entirely secular goal of any school district. So if you'll pardon the pun, the devil is always in the details. And according to what I understand the judge found, the district was particularly careful to strip out any religious content. Renaming the pose from lotus to criss-cross apple sauce, for example. And it appears they drew these lines in a very careful way.

CAVANAUGH: How clearly is religion and what is religious defined in law?

LOY: There are difficult legal questions in defining religion because courts don't want to question the legitimacy of someone's definition of what is or is not a religion. But in some ways, it's easier to say what is not religion than what is. And teaching a physical fitness routine that is devoid of any references to anything that is spiritual or sacred and simply saying we're going to stretch in this way, we're going to breathe in this way, if that's completely devoid of any spiritual -- arguably spiritual or religious content, then it's clearly not religious. And so the district is simply not endorsing religion by saying if you stretch your body in this particular way and do these particular routines you will improve your physical health and fitness. In that way, it's no different from the other physical education class, and the fact that other people might do the same thing in a way that is spiritual or religious with references to higher powers or spiritual health, yoga certainly can be practiced that way. But it's not, according to the judge, being practiced that way in the district. So it's just -- the judge found this is a completely secular program.

CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you what I thought was an interesting twist in this case. A conservative legal group represented the plaintiffs in this case. They claimed teaching yoga violates the separation of church and state. I thought conservative Christian legal theory refuted the notion that there is a constitutional mandated separation of church and state.

LOY: Often where you stand depends on where you sit. And our position at the ACLU is that the constitution plays no favorites. I can't speak NCLP's -- whether they are or are not being hypocritical in this case. From our standpoint, the constitution plays no favorites. And we would look at the facts of any given case regardless of who's on which side, and we reach our decisions based on the principles and the analysis of the facts. So the ACLU has represented Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists. We've defended certain programs against the claim that they violate church of state. We've always defended free exercise rights of religious people, their free speech rights. So we look at each case in its facts. And based on what the judge found, it appears on these particular facts, there is no violation.

CAVANAUGH: Judge John Myer was rather critical of the information on yoga supplied by the plaintiffs. Tell us about that.

CALVERT: Well, he wasn't necessarily critical of the information. The prosecuting attorney based the case largely on the expert testimony of a theologian.

CAVANAUGH: Didn't he call it a trial by Wikipedia?

CALVERT: Well, he did. That was about parents' letters to the district. The prosecutor submitted all of these letters from parents about their concerns over the program and also the founders of Ashtanga yoga and their intent that it be a spiritual practice. So parents and the theologian they brought in pointed to quotes from the founder of Ashtanga and his wife and grandson who continue to sort of promote this form of yoga saying that even if you come to Ashtanga yoga with no intention of seeking God, that by going through these motions, doing these poses, you will come to a closer relationship with a higher power.

CAVANAUGH: Whether you want to or not.

CALVERT: Whether you want to or not. And that was sort of their concern that even if the district had no intent of there being a spiritual content, just by doing these poses, because of the founder's views that they would bring you closer to God, that the district was thereby promoting Hinduism just by going through the motions.

CAVANAUGH: Okay.

CALVERT: And so their expert witness testified that, yes, because of the view of the founders, because of the roots of this practice, just doing these motions was a religious act. And the judge basically said that the prosecution was was presenting this as a fact, are as an agreed upon fact by religious scholars. And the judge's opinion was, no, this is her opinion. This doctor Kenya Brown has the position that yoga is religious and doesn't belong in public schools. So he said while she is very learned and clearly has done a lot of research and that the information was solid, that she was forming an opinion and making statements based on that opinion.

CAVANAUGH: And I'm almost out of time, David. The fact that the judge found that Ashtanga yoga is for some a spiritual practice, and yet the way it's being taught in Encinitas classrooms, it is not, and therefore doesn't violate the constitution. Does that kind of a ruling, even though we know there is going to be an appeal, but does that set up a difficult appeal for the defenders of the yoga practice? Did he open a door for the plaintiffs?

LOY: I don't think so. I it's analogous to the situation, the ten commandments say thou shalt not kill, steal, or lie. A public school can teach the principle that it is wrong to steal, kill, and lie. Those are principles that can be separated from the religious content. What the school cannot do is tell the students God tells you not to kill, steal, or lie. But simply because you teach principles that happen to coincide with religious fact or original had a religious foundation does not violate the constitution as long as you strip it of that religious content and teach it as a principle. This appears to be a situation where the school has been very careful to separate out and to extract any religious content and present no religious content to the students, in the same way that schools can teach about character, doing the right thing, don't steel, lie, or cheat, as long as they do that in a nonreligious way.

CAVANAUGH: We must leave it there.