Courtroom interior_newWritten by Don Byrd

The California Appeals Court last week upheld a school yoga program against challenges from some parents that it improperly promoted elements of the Hindu faith. Like the trial court below it, the state’s 4th District Court of Appeal applied the “Lemon” test to reach its conclusion that the Encinitas School District did not violate the California Constitution’s ban on the establishment of religion (which mirrors the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause).

The “Lemon” test prohibits government programs that fail any one of three elements: 1) the program must have a secular purpose; 2) the primary purpose or effect of the program must not be to advance or prohibit religion; and 3) the program must not excessively entangle government with religion.

Most of the discussion concerned the second prong of the test. Here is a snippet from the court’s opinion:

We have carefully reviewed the evidence upon which the trial court made this determination, and agree that a reasonable observer would view the content of the District’s yoga program as being entirely secular. As the trial court described in its statement of decision, the District’s yoga classes consist of instruction in performing yoga poses, breathing, and relaxation, combined with lessons on building positive personal character traits, such as respect and empathy. We see nothing in the content of the District’s yoga program that would cause a reasonable observer to conclude that the program had the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion.

. . . To be sure, if the District’s program instructed children that through yoga they would become one with God and that yoga could help end the karmic cycle of reincarnation . . . we have little doubt that the program would violate the establishment clause. However . . . there is no evidence of any religious indoctrination in any of the written curriculum or in the evidence related to the teaching methods employed in actual District yoga classes.

Yoga in and of itself, the court continued, is not religious:

A yoga program such as the District’s that merely combines physical poses with breathing and quiet contemplation does not comport with any definition of religious activity of which we are aware . . . The District’s yoga program is not a belief system of any kind, much less one that addresses “ultimate concerns” such as the “meaning of life and death,” and “man’s role in the Universe.” Nor is the District’s yoga program comprehensive in the sense of being a “systematic series of answers” to all questions in life. Finally, the District’s yoga program does not prescribe ceremonial functions or have a clergy.

The Court also found the program clearly passes prongs 1 and 3 of the test. The yoga curriculum has a secular purpose (to “implement a physical fitness program that promotes physical and mental health.”), and it does not excessively entangle the school district with religion because the classes are not taught or directed by religious organizations or their employees, and because oversight of the program is no different from oversight of all curricula.

The three-judge panel’s decision was unanimous.