Church-State Relations: School District's Elementary Student Yoga Program Does Not Violate The California Constitution

April 21, 2015 | Bulletin No. 1244432.1

In 2011, the Encinitas Union School District ("District") implemented a yoga program funded by a grant from a private foundation.  A local school family challenged the program as an unconstitutional establishment of religion.  (Sedlock et al. v. Baird et al. (Cal. Ct. App. April 3, 2015, D064888) 2015 WL 152460.)  The Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, upheld the trial court decision and found that the yoga program, as instituted, did not constitute a violation of the establishment clause of the California Constitution.

Facts

After a one year pilot program at one elementary school in 2011, the District sought a grant to expand the program District wide.  The proposed program sought to provide access to yoga classes for students, staff, and families in the District.  The expanded program was developed and implemented District wide in January of 2013.  The program contained instruction on various yoga poses, proper breathing, and relaxation.  It also emphasized positive character traits such as empathy and respect.

The District received early complaints the program was "religious."  The District responded by removing anything that could have been considered religious.  Yoga poses were renamed; for example, lotus pose was renamed criss-cross applesauce.  The program made no mention about the religious context that yoga has in some cultures and religions.

The Sedlock family sought a writ of mandate against the District to prevent the District from continuing the program.  The trial court ruled in favor of the District.

Decision

Article I, section 4 of the California Constitution states, in relevant part, that
"[t]he Legislature shall make no law respecting establishment of religion."  The California Constitution is interpreted more strictly than the federal First Amendment establishment clause.  In upholding the trial court's decision, the Court of Appeal rejected the Sedlock's position, finding that the District's yoga program did not constitute an establishment of religion.  The Court of Appeal applied the three part Lemon test from the Supreme Court of the United States 1971 decision in Lemon v. Kurtzman.

In order for a government program to be constitutional under the Lemon test, (1) the government program must have a secular purpose; (2) the program's principal or primary effect must not advance or inhibit religion; and (3) the program must not foster excessive government entanglement of religion.  (Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) 403 U.S. 602, 612-613.)

First, the appellate court found that the program's purpose, health and physical fitness, was an acceptable secular or nonreligious purpose.

Second, the appellate court determined that the program's primary purpose did not advance nor inhibit religion.  The appellate court evaluated whether the program sent a stigmatic message to non-adherents, that they are outsiders and not full members of the community or whether adherents were insiders or favored members of the community.  The appellate court evaluated the program as a whole, from an objective perspective, and took into account the vulnerable nature of school children.  The appellate court looked at the specifics of the program and determined that it was devoid of any religious, mystical, or spiritual trappings.

It is important to note that the appellate court acknowledged the District allowed students to opt out, but stated that this was not a valid consideration in evaluating the constitutionality of the program.

Third, and finally, the appellate court found that the program did not foster excessive entanglement with religion.  This prong evaluated whether there was excessive interference of religious authorities in secular affairs or secular authorities in religious affairs.  The District's program did not create excessive entanglement because the District developed the curriculum and hired the teachers.  The relationship between the District and the granting foundation was merely one of grantee and grantor.

The appellate court also summarily rejected the Sedlock's challenges that the program violated the free exercise, no preference, and the no aid to religion clauses because the Sedlocks did not make any independent arguments in support of those claims.

What This Means to You

This case demonstrates that successful implementation of a yoga program—or any other program that may implicate the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state—should be developed carefully.  In particular, all programming must have a nonreligious primary purpose.  Any program that may arguably have religious, or "spiritual" components should be carefully reviewed to ensure it does not endorse or inhibit religion.  Finally, any program that involves a religious organization should be developed in a way that does not risk excessive entanglement between the district and the organization.

Questions

If you have any questions concerning this Legal Alert, please contact the following from our office, or the attorney with whom you normally consult.
Christian M. Keiner | 916.321.4500 or Daniel M. McElhinney | 805.786.4302