After a couple of weeks of what you could call silence, the superintendent of the Encinitas Union School District and the CEO of the Jois Foundation have responded to the charges by some parents that the district’s Ashtanga-based yoga program violated the separation of church and state by being religious.
You can see the whole thing right here at the Encinitas Patch. (I’ll note that they went to a smaller, online-only news outlet, rather than the North County Times, which really has been driving this story. The only new news the Times has is a piece on the online petition we mentioned a week or so ago.)
Here are a few highlight from the Patch piece; Baird is Timothy Baird, the superintendent:
“To be unconstitutional, we would have to be promoting religion and religious instruction in our program. That just isn’t happening,” Baird stated in an email to Encinitas Patch. “What we are promoting is physical activity and overall wellness. The District has selected the instructors, we are designing the curriculum, and we are training the teachers. There is no religion in this curriculum.”
Patch also notes that the lawyer driving this, National Center for Law and Policy’s (NCLP) Dean Broyles, didn’t return calls but did email — just to send the same stuff we received, from the sounds of things. Patch continues:
Baird says that EUSD has made sure to remove cultural contexts from the yoga classes.
“In an effort to make the program more ‘kid friendly,’ and to try and avoid creating controversy with some of our parents, we have removed the Sanskrit terms for some of the poses,” stated Baird, who added that Sanskrit is merely a language and not religious.
Some of the parents have objected to the use of Sanskrit in classes, according to Baird, but he stated “that would be comparable to saying that teaching Latin is promoting Catholicism or using Hebrew is teaching Judaism.”
I’m curious if everyone agrees with that analogy. Teaching Latin is different, for instance, from teaching an old Catholic prayer in Latin. I don’t know the context of how Sanskrit is used (or not) in these classes, but given the importance of sound, how sound directly represents elements greater than ourselves and the sometimes direct connection to different Hindu deities, I understand the concern. I wonder if the better analogy (again, depending on how Sanskrit is being taught and used) wouldn’t be to teaching students how to say “God” in Latin. Can “Om” be “neutral?”
More from Patch:
In an effort to further placate concerned parents, Baird stated, “We have also removed pictures or artifacts from classrooms that might represent yoga’s Indian roots.”
Despite these efforts to allay fears that Ashtanga is promoting Hindu concepts, Baird thinks that these moves don’t equate the school district removing religious concepts from the program.
“I don’t really believe that we have taken religion out of the program because the only way to put religion into the program is to teach a religious philosophy and then incorporate the yoga into that philosophy. We are not doing this,” Baird stated.
That settles for me a big question I had: Was this yoga program “vetted” or introduced smartly? If the program started with statues of Shiva and Ganesh in the classroom, as this makes it seem, then the district and the foundation began on the wrong foot. They were asking for trouble, even if it took months for trouble to materialize.
Patch goes on to address the other concerns that NCLP outlined in the release it sent us (and Patch). You can check the Patch story for answers to whether there are other P.E. classes available (the district says yes) and to concerns about the students’ data being used as part of a bigger study (Baird says they got release from parents).
Patch also gets responses from the foundation’s CEO, Eugene Ruffin:
When asked whether the Jois Foundation is primarily pushing Ashtanga in schools, Ruffin responded, “It doesn’t matter what type of yoga is being taught in school. We know that yoga, which is reimbursable by Medicare and leading insurance companies such as Kaiser, is offered for our returning soldiers by the federal government for PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder]… there’s a ton of positives of yoga. We know it works. But we’re not pushing a particular brand of yoga. But we’re connected to and know Ashtanga, so we use that.”
Ruffin refuted that Ashtanga incorporates religion, at least not in the EUSD program.
“I can’t see any credibility or any objectivity in that we are facilitating some kind of religious goal. In fact, most of the people involved in the foundation, by and large, are Judeo-Christian in background; the foundation’s primary goal is to provide solutions to health in our public schools and the health of the children, not the preaching of Hinduism.”
The first answer (which on my first read really felt like “spin” to me, but one a second and additional read doesn’t come off as badly) neatly packages yoga as a health benefit, which I think is the district and foundation’s strongest argument. This needs to be about health — there’s no doubt (right?) that we have a growing health crisis among America’s kids. That said, I’m not sure what he says would answer parent concerns about Jois “pushing” Ashtanga, though, despite his saying they don’t. (A “no we don’t,” “yes you do” argument can go on forever, right?) Some of the more “evangelical” or, if you want to be kinder, “enthusiastic” language from Jois Yoga certainly can be used against it here.
Reading the second answer, I can’t help but want to pull at the words “in background.” What about the people’s religious or spiritual life now? If they are no longer practicing Judeo-Christians, that also might feed into the opposition. (The most cynical part of me can see the court case: Jois employee/volunteer after employee/volunteer being called to a witness stand and asked about their religious beliefs, when and how the evolved, etc.)
Again, as I’ve said before (even above), this whole story ultimately strikes me as a PR nightmare that could have been avoiding early on with a few simple changes up front: don’t include images of Hindu deities; avoid Sanskrit and names of poses that invoke religion. A lesson learned, I assume.
Posted by Steve