Tag Archives: Education

Yoga in Public Schools, American and Indian

Indian Schoolchildren Doing Yoga (NYT)

Last summer, I wrote about a constitutional challenge to yoga classes in California public schools. When a school district near San Diego added yoga to its elementary-school gym program, some parents complained. Yoga, they said, is a Hindu discipline, and including it in a compulsory gym class violates the Establishment Clause. A state trial court disagreed, holding that the school district had removed all religious references, so that what remained was simply a stretching class for kids.

It turns out that similar litigation is unfolding across the world in India, the place where yoga originated. But there, the courts appear to be taking a harder line. The plaintiffs in the Indian case want that country’s Supreme Court to order public schools to include yoga in the curriculum. They cite a 2005 study showing that yoga is important for students’ mental and physical health. The Supreme Court hasn’t ruled yet, but has expressed concern about ordering public school students to take yoga classes. Why? Because Indian public schools are officially secular, and yoga is a religious practice. At oral argument this fall, the court said that parents from minority religions–Christianity and Islam, for example–might object to a requirement that their children engage in Hindu exercises at school. The court has asked representatives of the minority religions to appear in the litigation as third parties to state their views.

What explains the different reactions of the American and Indian courts? Much has to do with the different cultural understandings of yoga. Here in the US, most people who do yoga don’t think of it as religious. Spiritual, yes, in the sense that it creates a sense of inner peace, but not religious. Oh, people may understand that yoga has Hindu roots and that some elements, like the salutation to the sun god and chanting the word “Om,” have religious meanings. But these aspects of yoga intrude very little on their experience. “Sure, yoga is religious for some,” they might say, “but not for us. Maybe other people think they’re greeting the sun god, and that’s fine. But we’re just stretching.” So when a public school says it has removed the religious elements of yoga and retained the secular, most Americans would find that position plausible. 

The difficulty is that yoga, as traditionally understood, doesn’t work that way. In traditional understanding, yoga is itself a religious act. The postures themselves lead the practitioner to God, whether the practitioner intends this or not. In traditional understanding, in other words, one can’t separate the religious and secular aspects of yoga and one really shouldn’t try. Indeed, some American Hindus object to the way our popular culture treats yoga as a designer gym routine. Much as many American Christians seek to “Keep Christ in Christmas,” the Hindu American Foundation has mounted a campaign to “Take Back Yoga” for the faith.

Perhaps yoga means one thing in one cultural context but something else in another. You’d have to think, though, that judges in yoga’s home country have a pretty good sense of what the practice is all about. The parents in the California case, who have appealed the trial court’s ruling, might want to have a look at the Indian court’s ultimate decision. 

1000 Mots

Conference on Educational Justice (Oct. 26)

On October 26, St. John’s University will host the biennal Vincentian Chair of Social Justice Conference. This year’s theme is “Educational Justice: Opportunity, Inclusion and Social Equity for All”:

Historically in the United States, education has served as a consistent and sustainable means of alleviating individual poverty and reducing social inequality.  Today, while the developing nations live on that same hope, the developed world has found that education as a poverty reliever and social equalizer has lost ground. The God-given dignity inherent in each person demands that all experience the liberating and enhancing influence of education as a basic human right.  During this conference, we will reflect on the manner in which educational policy and practice have in the past and must in the future contribute to poverty alleviation, social advancement and human solidarity.

Details are here.

Jivraj, “The Religion of Law”

ShowJacketNext month, Palgrave Macmillan will publish The Religion of Law: Race, Citizenship and Children’s Belonging by Suhraiya Jivraj (Kent Law School, University of Kent). The publisher’s description follows.

A timely and original examination into the ways in which religion is conceptualized in two areas of law relating to children – child welfare cases and education law and policy. The book focuses on the relationship between race, religion and culture, bringing critical race and religion perspectives from other disciplines to bear on law.

Shapiro, “Trying Biology: The Scopes Trial, Textbooks, and the Antievolution Movement in American Schools”

This past May, the University of Chicago Press published Trying Biology: The Scopes Trial, Textbooks, and the Antievolution Movement in American Schools, written Printby Adam R. Shapiro (Birbeck-University of London).  The publisher’s description follows.

In Trying Biology, Adam R. Shapiro convincingly dispels many conventional assumptions about the 1925 Scopes “monkey” trial.  Most view it as an event driven primarily by a conflict between science and religion.  Countering this, Shapiro shows the importance of timing: the Scopes trial occurred at a crucial moment in the history of biology textbook publishing, education reform in Tennessee, and progressive school reform across the country.  He places the trial in this broad context- alongside American Protestant antievolution sentiment- and in doing so sheds new light on the trial and the historical relationship of science and religion in America.

For the first time we see how religious objections to evolution became a prevailing concern to the American textbook industry even before the Scopes trial began.  Shapiro explores both the development of biology textbooks leading up to the trial and the ways in which the textbook industry created new books and presented them as “responses” to the trial.  Today, the controversy continues over textbook warning labels, making Shapiro’s study- particularly as it is plays out in one of America’s most famous trials- an original contribution to a timely discussion.

Is Yoga Constitutional?

Last month, I  wrote about a controversy surrounding the White House’s inclusion of a yoga garden in its annual Easter Egg Roll. The problem is this: yoga is a Hindu spiritual practice. Arguably, therefore, state-sponsored yoga is a religious endorsement that violates the Establishment Clause under existing Supreme Court case law.

Yoga Class at Encinitas School (New York Times)

It turns out that very issue is being litigated this week in a California  court. The Encinitas Union School District has introduced yoga as part of the phys ed program in elementary schools. Some parents object that the program highlights yoga’s spiritual elements and amounts to religious indoctrination. The school argues that it has eliminated religious references and that what remains is nothing more than an enriched gym class. An Indiana University religious studies professor who testified at trial demurs. She says that that it would be odd, from a Hindu perspective, to separate yoga’s physical and spiritual elements.

Under Supreme Court precedent, government can separate “cultural” from “religious” messages and promote the former. That’s why official Christmas displays with reindeer and elves survive constitutional scrutiny, but not solo nativity scenes. The logic is that the secular decorations swamp the religious message and ensure that passersby don’t think the government is endorsing Christianity, as opposed to Christianity’s cultural accretions.

This logic has saved some Christmas displays, but offended some Christians. To them, the Supreme Court’s reasoning suggests an unfortunate hostility to their religion: Christmas is acceptable in the public square only if its spiritual associations are diluted. To be sure, the Supreme Court  has said only that official displays must avoid religious associations, but people rarely compartmentalize things so logically. Culture often follows law.

So here’s a question: if official yoga programs are allowed on the theory that they have been scrubbed of religious associations, will pious Hindus object?Will people start demanding to keep the yoga  in yoga?

A Bunny is a Bunny

I guess it was bound to happen. A public elementary school in Alabama has renamed its annual Easter Egg Hunt to avoid giving offense to non-Christian children and parents. According to the school’s principal, Lydia Davenport, the hunt will still take place; it will just no longer have the word “Easter” attached to it. The seasonal rabbit will likewise go nameless:

“Kids love the bunny,” smiles Davenport, “and we just make sure we don’t say ‘the Easter bunny’ so that we don’t infringe on the rights of others because people relate the Easter bunny to religion; a bunny is a bunny and a rabbit is a rabbit,” Davenport concluded.

Well, you can’t argue with that. Most disputes about public holiday displays in America involve Christmas, of course. This is so, I think, because Easter, although far more important as a religious holiday, is relatively minor as a public holiday. Perhaps that’s because it falls on a Sunday. Compared to Christmas, Easter passes by almost without notice in America. But there’s no reason we can’t fight over it as well. Let the Easter Wars begin.

Mead on the “Christian Taliban” at West Point

At the always valuable Via Meadia, Walter Russell Mead has an interesting post concerning last week’s allegations by a former cadet that a “Christian Taliban” harasses non-believers at the US Military Academy. Mead is skeptical it’s as bad as the former cadet says and argues that Christianity in the military is a good thing. Nonetheless, he says, it’s important to strike a balance between the rights of believers and non-believers and he suggests that West Point review the situation. Serious Christians know, he writes, that their faith requires them to show “respect, fairness, and friendship for those outside the fold.”

Berner on Educational Pluralism

First Things has just posted an important and thoughtful essay by Ashley Berner, “The Case for  Educational Pluralism.” Berner (left), co-director of the Moral Foundations of Education Project at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture — and an occasional guest blogger at CLR Forum — argues that pluralism can offer great benefits and help resolve tensions in public education.

Unlike the American model, which relies on government to deliver education, the pluralist model involves government funding of private schools. These schools may reflect a variety of beliefs and perspectives, both religious and non-religious; public oversight is limited to ensuring that general educational requirements are met. Berner points out that many Western democracies have such systems, which allow greater educational diversity than the American model. Moreover,  pluralism avoids a central problem of American public education: a false neutrality that masks a secularist philosophy many parents reject.

Berner concedes that educational pluralism comes with problems of its own and may face constitutional difficulties under current law. But, she writes, pluralism “offers an honest acknowledgement of the myriad value judgments inherent in any education and generously accommodates a variety of beliefs and opinions in a way more congruous with the United States’ democratic political philosophy than does the current system. While some people fear that such pluralism would produce division and harm the students educationally, evidence suggests that, in fact, pluralism often yields superior civic and academic results.” Read the whole thing.

Massachusetts High Court to Hear Challenge to Pledge of Allegiance

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has agreed to hear a challenge to a state law requiring schoolchildren to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Plaintiffs, a Secular Humanist family with children in Massachusetts public schools, argue that the phrase, “under God,” in the Pledge violates a state constitutional ban on religious discrimination. Eight years ago, in Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, the US Supreme Court dismissed a federal constitutional challenge to the Pledge on the ground that the plaintiff in that case lacked standing. It doesn’t look like standing will be a problem in the Massachusetts case, however, so the Massachusetts court may well reach the merits. Apparently, there is little case law under the state constitution that addresses the question. Can Newdow  provide any guidance? Newdow is noteworthy mostly for Justice O’Connor’s concurrence, arguing that the phrase “under God” would be permissible under the Establishment Clause as a sort of ceremonial deism. It will be interesting to see whether the Massachusetts court adopts similar reasoning under the state constitution. The case is Doe v. Acton-Boxborough Regional School District.