Establishment Clause Issues and the Encinitas Unified School District

youth yoga Photo credit: gymflow100.com[/caption]

Religion in the classroom is a highly polarizing issue. Struggles between religious beliefs and education tend do deal more with ceremonial activities (i.e. prayer in the classroom). For the Encinitas Unified School District (EUSD), however, contention lies in an unsuspecting place, physical education classes.

A heated exchange has been brewing since Escondido-based attorney Dean Broyles announced that he planned to sue the district because of their adoption of a new Ashtanga Yoga P.E. program. As of yesterday, Broyles has still not followed through with his threat. This issue has been ongoing for the past few months, but ultimately it seems as though Broyles doesn’t have much of a basis to sue the district.

The program is set to begin this January, in which the entire district will transition from traditional P.E. courses to Ashtanga Yoga classes. The program will be funded by a $533,000 grant provided from the Jois Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes the discipline.

“Mr. Broyles is pursuing this issue with much fire and brimstone,” said Coast Law Group attorney Dave Peck. “There is a huge difference between filing a suit, and prevailing in a suit. As it currently stands, he is looking for facts that truly don’t exist.”

In a thread of e-mails between Peck and Broyles, Broyles defended his stance.

“Their savage vilification in the press and elsewhere in the Encinitas community is surely undeserved and has consistently revealed the illusion of ‘tolerance,’ ‘diversity,’ and ‘inclusion’ that our public schools are so enthusiastically championing today. Whatever happened to the good old days of disagreeing without becoming disagreeable?  The anti-Christian bigotry, hatred, and name-calling, expressed has perhaps reached a sad  new low of un-civil discourse.  Rest assured that my clients will gladly bear it to protect constitutional principles, especially religious freedom.”

The issue at hand involves the Establishment Clause of the Consitution, which plainly states that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of a religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In quoting Thomas Jefferson, the Supreme Court stated that the Establishment Clause was meant to erect a “wall of separation between Church and State” in the 1947 ruling in Everson v. Board of Educ. of Ewing.

Broyles argues that the practice of yoga, in its meditative and prayer like positions, as well as the association with Hinduism, is establishing a religion for EUSD. Attorney Dave Peck assured Broyles in their correspondence, that it was in fact, not.

Should Broyles decide to go through with the suit, Peck assured him that his firm would defend EUSD as a pro bono case.

“Nobody is suggesting that the Constitution be negotiated or that religious freedoms be compromised,” Peck explained to Broyles. “As I expressed during our discussion, my clients and I stand firmly at your side in support of the Establishment Clause.  We simply don’t believe that the First Amendment is imperiled by the EUSD yoga program.  We nonetheless have open minds and thus invite you to identify your specific concerns about the yoga classroom experience.”

A resulting meeting was held for EUSD parents on Tuesday, December 4 to garner public input on the matter. Several parents were against the proposed program, but in the end it should ultimately be set into practice. Broyles threat to sue should wane over the holidays, but will be interesting to see how plays out in 2013. If the suit gets filed, the court will look to prior decisions made in landmark cases Wallace v. Jaffries (1985), Lee v. Weisman (1992), and, of course, McCollum v. Board of Education (1948).