The culture wars are described as a struggle between those values considered traditionalist or conservative and those considered progressive or liberal. More narrowly, it can be defined as the battle between maintaining a secular country and one founded on Judeo-Christian values, or at least as what pass as those in today’s environment. These battles have been going on for years and one of the main fronts for the war has been public education.
The latest skirmish in this long running war is also one of the most notable and is playing out right on Southern California's doorstep. To the south of Santa Ana, in Encinitas, CA, an important battle is playing out between these forces. The problem? It seems that Encinitas Union School District (EUSD) has begun teaching its children yoga.
Not much of a problem many might say—and actually do. Children get taught stretching, exercise, and relaxation techniques all during the school day as part of the district’s mandated requirement to provide physical education. But, what the majority of Encinitas citizens see as a non-secular approach to student physical fitness, others see as an attempt to indoctrinate children into “neo-paganism” and a "one-ist" world view.
This drama began in a most unlikely fashion when a trophy wife, Sonia Jones, the ex-model wife to multi-billionaire Paul Tudor Jones, the founder of Tudor Investment Company, discovered yoga. Some years prior, Sonia was debilitated with a bad back. She was numb from the waist down and suffering greatly. Desperate for help, she reached out, willing to try anything in order to regain her health.
In these searches, she crossed paths with K. Pattabhi Jois, the founder of the Ashtanga yoga movement. Jois had been coming to Encinitas over the years to spread his vision of yoga to the West. Under the tutelage of Jois, Sonia was able to find the cure for her ills. She practiced the yoga principles taught to her by Jois and was relieved from her suffering; in the process, she became a convert.
As with most new converts, Sonia wanted to spread the good word. She desired to help others discover the benefits of Ashtanga yoga. What separates Sonia though from many converts is a husband with an estimated 3.3 billion dollars in assets. When Sonia wants to spread the news, she has the financial backing to do so.
During this period of time her guru, K. Pattabhi Jois, died in his home country of India. With her zeal and resources, Sonia decided to work to keep Ashtanga yoga alive and spread the word of its benefits. She endeavored to do what any other well-heeled billionaire’s wife would do, open a charitable foundation. It from these beginnings that the Jois Foundation and the Jois Yoga Company was formed.
The Jois Foundation is an outgrowth of the Jois Yoga Corporation. This company has started a high-end line of yoga clothing and opened tony yoga studios in some of the highest rent areas of the U.S. and Australia. Currently there are Jois yoga studios in Encinitas, CA, Greenwich, CN, and Sydney, Australia. It is rumored that its yoga studio in Encinitas cost over $1,000,000 to build and the rent on the space is $11,000 per month.
Even among Ashtanga adherents, the Jois Yogs Company (JYC) is controversial, albeit for different reasons. In April, 2012, Vanity Fair published an excellent piece detailing the issues created within the Ashtanga world by the JYC. By any standard, the JYC is creating a materialistic version of a non-materialistic pursuit, an idea to which purists object.
It is not the JYC that is the concern here though; it is the Foundation associated with it. The Jois Foundation is a separate entity from the JYC. It has a separate board and wholly different goals. The goal of the foundation is to bring its Ashtanga yoga-based health and wellness to school children, particularly those in under served communities.
The Jois Foundation, through Sonia, has big goals. It is attempting to create an evidence-based program that it can roll out to schools throughout the world. It plans to train children in Ashtanga yoga from Africa to Encinitas. In fact, its first client was in Encinitas, where it began volunteering instructors to teach yoga at nine of EUSD’s elementary school. The foundation provided trained instructors, the curriculum, and even yoga mats. The program was so successful that it was broadened when the district accepted a $533,000 grant to expand the program throughout the district. The trouble was already beginning.
It seems not everyone was excited at the prospect of children learning yoga. One such person was Mary Eady, a local parent, a devout Christian, and an employee of the TruthXchange. Mary began at the district level complaining about the program, and she is now one of the plaintiffs suing the district to put an end to Ashtanga yoga for children. It seems that Mary and the TruthXchange have some real concerns about the future of America. They believe that it is threatened by “neo-paganism” and “One-ism.” Neo-paganism is best defined as modern religious beliefs influenced by ancient European pagan religious beliefs. One-ism refers to a belief systems in which all things are one, each being is part of a greater whole. This is the opposite of what the TruthXchange believes which is what they refer to as “Two-ism,” where under a creator, the Christian God, created us as separate with our job as His creation being to worship and obey him.
In emails and at board meetings, Ms. Eady voiced her concerns about the program. She had withdrawn her child from participating, as is allowed by the district, but that was not enough. She feels that the instruction is inappropriate for any child in a public school setting because it is spiritual in nature.
As is the case in these types of issues, the conflict began to spread as like-minded Christians in the community began to discuss the program and their feelings. It was through this process that another now plaintiff entered the fray, Jennifer Sedlock. Ms. Sedlock is a Christian Inspirational speaker. She professionally speaks on topics such as “How Your Personality Impacts Your Prayer and Worship Style,” “Celebrating Christ-Centered Holidays,” and “Moving Forward in Faith,” in addition to non-secular topics.
It was during this period of time that a lawyer for the plaintiffs got involved, Dean Broyles. Mr. Broyles is a devout Christian who, according to his website, “was called to law school specifically to be trained to fight for religious liberties.” While in law school, Mr. Broyles clerked for several years at the National Legal Foundation, a religious liberty non-profit organization. On his website it states, “Following law school graduation, while starting his civil litigation practice, he (Mr. Broyles) was invited to become an affiliate attorney of the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), from which Dean has received extensive training in pro-family, pro-life and pro-religious liberty matters at ADF’s outstanding National Litigation Academies (NLA).”
Mr. Broyles is the founder of the National Center for Law and Policy (NCLP). This offshoot of the ADF states on its website that it purpose is “the protection and promotion of religious freedom, the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, parental rights, and other civil liberties.” It has engaged in many California legal battles involving the right to speak about one’s Christian faith in public settings, against gay marriage, and similar such issues.
One of Mr. Broyle’s first legal moves was to email the district requesting that the district end the program or face unspecified legal action. In a move rare for school districts, EUSD stuck to its guns. Despite the threat of legal action and the loud and persistent complaints from a small, vocal minority of parents who were actively petitioning to end the program, EUSD took the Jois grant money and in January, expanded the yoga program to all its schools.
Not being taken seriously, the group, under the legal stewardship of Mr. Broyles, has now taken the issue to court. It has filed a First Amendment Establishment Clause claim basically stating that the Jois/Encinitas Yoga program is the government working to favor a particular religion. EUSD hotly denies this claim and points to the steps it has taken to ensure that no religious elements go into the instruction.
Most notably, the district, as reported by Katherine Stewart, has taken proactive to maintain control of the entire program and its curriculum. The assistant superintendent for the small K-6 district, David Miyashiro, about stated in an interview with her that the program is in no way religious. He personally oversees the curriculum to ensure that it matches the Presidential Physical Fitness Standards, which contain absolutely no religion.
While there are many interesting facets to this case, legal, educational, human interest, what is most fascinating it is how it has forced its participants to tip their hands as to their real motives. Going back to the NCLP and Dean Broyles, here is an organization whose main premise is to assist “religious” organizations in being able to communicate religious messages. In fact, on his website, Mr. Broyles has a piece he penned concerning the rights of public employees to say Merry Christmas at work. While discussing what Fox News calls the “War on Christmas,” Mr. Broyles counseled his readers on their rights to say “Merry Christmas” in the workplace, especially teachers. In this discussion he makes an interesting assertion. ”Teachers also have the right to wish their students a ‘Merry Christmas,’ in spite of their role as agents of the state. In order to violate the Establishment Clause, a teacher would have to use her authority to proselytize-to promote a specific religion to impressionable youth. See School Dist. of Abington v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963). (emphasis mine)
Given this overall attitude toward Christian expressions of faith, it might appear (or not) counter-intuitive for Mr. Broyles to be claiming that a series of stretches and body movements are religious in nature and should not be allowed in our public schools. If the standard is that teachers must proselytize, which by any measure is not going on in Esconidido, why should the NCLP feel concerned? The obvious answer to this question is because the faith in question is not the faith he feels should be allowed in schools, the Christian faith.
Clearly, this is not a revelation. However, it is not often that a case comes around that spotlights the fact that organizations and individuals who engage in these culture war battles are usually not in it to advance the cause of religion in schools, and that what makes them so troublesome. They are not religion neutral organizations that want schools to be open to religious expression. They want school to be open to only their brand of religious expression.
Non-Christians have to ask, what are they so threatened by? The ideal of America is that in the marketplace of ideas, the truth will win out. True advocates of expression welcome all expression, not just that which salutes their like-minded opinion. Relevantly here, it is not difficult to find Christian practitioners who engage in practices from other religions but practice them in a Christian manner. There are Christian’s who practice mindfulness (a Buddhist practice) and Christian’s who practice yoga. Both of these are simply techniques developed by a religion which have other purposes. Working to ban yoga (or mindfulness) is akin to banning Kung Fu because it was invented by a Hindu monk.
As also pointed out by Katherine Stewart in her excellent article, the other issue is the curriculum’s source. Here, the Jois Foundation has strong Hindu ties. The Jois family, who is on the board, are all Hindus who practice yoga as an offshoot of their Hindu faith. Once again though, this does not stop numerous Christian organizations with far more out-spoken evangelical interests from bank rolling activities that take place in school or that are promoted and held at our public schools.
As for the author's view, while I have no problem with the yoga that is taking place in Encinitas, I would gladly jettison it if the same would happen for all such curriculum and programs sponsored by religiously affiliated groups. While having children perform exercise movements that started from a religion is totally benign and, to my mind, not an example of government favoring a particular religion, the loss of yoga would certainly serve a greater purpose if all such groups were kept away from impressionable children.
How will this case be decided? It is tough to say. The jurisprudence in this area is tortured at best and, if there are parties sufficiently interested to see this case through, it would not surprise me to see this particular case find its way to our Supreme Court.