Posts Tagged ‘Sedlock v. Baird’

Sedlock v. Baird: when is a religion not a religion?

July 3, 2013

It’s nice when improper religious advocacy in public school is easy to spot. Teaching creationism, making students pray or recite creed statements, slapping crosses on the walls, those just make for easier cases. If “under God” in the pledge could ever get past the “standing” issue, I think that, too, would be a no-brainer case.

Then there are closer cases. A secular Bible history class, but where the teacher insists on using only the King James version of the Bible to all others – or, insists on exclusively teaching the Catholic apocrypha. A science teacher teaches the evolution curriculum to a T, but does it while rolling her eyes the entire time. “Purity rings.” These are the cases where real doctrine-making gets done, where there are actually cases to argue about.

The Superior Court of California (San Diego) just gave us a hard case that sounds like an easy case, Sedlock v. Baird: teaching yoga in public school gym classes is, apparently, not “religious indoctrination.”

For probably about 99% of the Americans who practice yoga, yoga is a form of exercise – at the most, a hybrid of exercise and meditation. Some of the verbiage surrounding yoga, like bringing out one’s “inner spirit,” or reciting “mantas,” greeting instructors or other pupils with “namaste,” are essentially cultural niceties that have no religious connotations whatsoever. Much like Buddhism, yoga’s importation to the West came with a considerable amount of secularizing, at least where the ordinary practitioner is concerned. Most people who practice yoga probably have just a peripheral awareness that yoga-as-exercise has its origins in yoga-as-religion, as a devotional practice in many forms of Hinduism.

The children of Encinitas Union School District’s public schools are required to take a certain number of hours of physical fitness every school year, and last year the District received a grant from something called the Jois Foundation (which, judging by its website, is a pretty small operation) to use yoga as the school’s primary means of physical fitness. Students whose parents were offended were allowed to opt out; there’s a factual dispute about whether or not those students received an alternative physical fitness program that satisfied the same hourly requirement, but lets put that aside for the moment and talk about the real issue: when is yoga fitness, and when is yoga religion?

The article cited at the top of the post with the news of the ruling is, I think, unfairly condescending to the plaintiffs in this case. The plaintiffs are fundamentalist Christian parents, which doesn’t help their case since it makes it easy to contextualize them as hysterically overreacting, but I’m not as certain as either the Honorable John S. Meyer, who decided this case, or the editorial above’s author.

Doing yoga by itself as exercise makes sense – I’m not a yoga practitioner myself, but I’m not going to seriously dispute that yoga has fitness value. But what I do dispute as having fitness value value are such things as mandala painting, healing prayer, extra credit for properly performing devotional hand gestures, posters depicting Hindu gods with Hindu theological terms written on them, all taught by private yoga instructors of dubious certification. I can’t quite figure out how, even if contextualized as “cultural trappings,” such things are at all appropriate in the context of physical education.

In fact, much of the dismissive verbiage in the op-ed that related this case to me quite distressingly mirrors similarly dismissive language that the Christian right uses to defend its own religious agenda for public schools. “‘Under God’ isn’t a religious marriage, it’s just American cultural trappings!” Ditto Bible readings, school prayers, prayers at graduations or sports games, ditto Ten Commandments on the walls and “theology” lessons or “alternatives to evolution” that always end up sounding like long-form Books of Genesis.

The “cultural trappings” of Hinduism are just as unconstitutional as the cultural trappings of any particular religion in America’s public schools. The knee-jerk reaction to the evangelical Christian plaintiffs in this case is understandable, since this is certainly one of the most martyr-complexed demographics in the body politic; to paraphrase Bertrand Russell, there are few critters on this Earth happier than Christians who think they are being oppressed. But in this case, we shouldn’t be too hasty to side with anything-but-Christianity because anything-like-Christianity is barred by a century of Constitutional jurisprudence and by the wisdom of the secularists who founded this country.

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