The American Center for Law and Justice — led by Trump attorney Jay Sekulow — is challenging public-school mindfulness programs for endorsing Buddhism. This is not the first time religious conservatives have argued that schools violate the First Amendment by establishing non-Christian religions. In 2013, the National Center for Law & Policy, supported by Alliance Defending Freedom, sued a California school district for advancing Hinduism through yoga.
Public school yoga and mindfulness are popular and divisive
Thousands of schools have begun to use yoga and/or mindfulness techniques with the goals of reducing stress and improving learning. Schools that use these approaches argue that yoga and mindfulness techniques are scientifically validated to teach life skills and develop character by helping kids learn to be compassionate, kind and nonjudgmental.
But many Christians, Jews and Muslims in the United States and globally argue that yoga and meditation — even when used as a physical warm-up or to reduce stress — are fundamentally religious activities connected with Hinduism and Buddhism. Even some Hindus and Buddhists consider it inappropriate to teach these practices in public schools. For instance, one signatory of a petition opposing a California school Ashtanga yoga program explained, “I’m Hindu and I do not think that this type of yoga is appropriate as a form of exercise in the public school.” And self-described secular humanist Edward Tabash, chair of the National Legal Committee of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in 2007 that “I can quite frankly see a coalition between religious fundamentalists and atheists challenging” school meditation.
Over the course of five years researching my recently published book, “Debating Yoga and Mindfulness in Public Schools,” I interviewed scores of parents and children, schoolteachers and administrators, yoga and mindfulness instructors, and attorneys and scholars from a dozen states, plus Canada, Europe and Asia.
Many of the most vocal critics of school yoga and mindfulness are conservative Christians who lost the battle for school prayer and Bible reading. These Christians worry that schools now coerce children to practice other religions. But complaints go deeper than suggesting courts bar one religion yet allow another. The critics I interviewed charge that school yoga and mindfulness pressure kids to commit idolatry — which many consider the worst of all religious transgressions. As one Christian parent wrote in a legal declaration for Sedlock v. Baird, “the poses have religious significance as they are considered an acknowledgment and/or worship of Hindu deities.”
Questioning the ‘secularity’ of yoga and mindfulness
These critics might well be correct. Consider one widely used mindfulness program, called “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction,” (MBSR), which Jon Kabat-Zinn developed from his Buddhist practice and which he considers intimately involved with the Buddhist “dharma,” or spiritual truth. Sonia and Paul Tudor Jones, multibillionaire devotees of the Indian Hindu Shri Krishna Pattabhi Jois, incorporated the K.P. Jois USA Foundation (now renamed Pure Edge) to fund the Ashtanga yoga program litigated in Sedlock v. Baird, which begins with a posture Jois defined as “prayer to the sun god.”
Studies suggest that even secularized yoga and mindfulness programs can encourage spiritual and religious experiences. Surveys correlate longer, more frequent practice with increased reporting of “spiritual” motives and experiences; decreased likelihood of identifying as Christian or monotheistic; and increased likelihood of identifying as “Buddhist,” with “all” religions, or as “spiritual but not religious.”
Describing yoga and mindfulness as spiritual but not religious carries an advantage. The First Amendment prohibits establishment of “religion” but does not mention “spirituality.” Yet spirituality, like religion, implies some inner reality beyond that of the material world — which, for many, contribute to their appeal.
For those who oppose having such programs in the schools, this is the problem. Having one’s child participate feels as if he or she is being trained in a religion other than their own, which the family’s beliefs define as idolatry.
Is religious freedom under siege?
The U.S. religious landscape is changing. Between 2007 and 2014, the proportion of Americans identifying as “Christian” dropped from 78 to 71 percent, while ranks of the unaffiliated jumped from 16 to 23 percent. The ratio identifying as “spiritual but not religious” rose from 19 to 27 percent between 2012 and 2017.
Many Christians, among them the 80 percent of white evangelicals who voted for Trump in 2016, worry that governments unsympathetic to Christianity may infringe on people’s freedom to practice their own religion or coerce people to act in violation of conscience. A quarter of pro-Trump voters say they chose him in large part because of their concern about Supreme Court appointments. The Trump administration has submitted more friend-of-the-court briefs in religious liberty cases than did those of either Barack Obama or George W. Bush.
To defuse controversies, policymakers need to understand fears of religious coercion
Courts prohibit schools from sponsoring religious practices such as prayer, Bible reading, or Transcendental Meditation — even if schools allow students to opt out or offer the classes as electives. As Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the court majority in its 1992 decision in Lee v. Weisman, the simple fact that the school is endorsing the practice exerts pressure that “though subtle and indirect, can be as real as any overt compulsion. … [F]or the dissenter of high school age, who has a reasonable perception that she is being forced by the State to pray in a manner her conscience will not allow, the injury is no less real.”
When schools define spiritually divisive practices as “secular” and teach yoga and mindfulness to entire classrooms during regular school hours, critics perceive religious coercion.
The religious critics I interviewed suggested they could drop their objections if policymakers would acknowledge the religious and spiritual dimensions of such programs and would offer them as voluntary options that students would have to actively choose, treating yoga and mindfulness much as they do prayer and Bible reading. They’re not opposed to the mere existence of yoga and mindfulness programs on school grounds, they told me. Rather, they worry that children must choose between obeying their teachers or their religious beliefs.
Candy Gunther Brown is a professor of religious studies at Indiana University and the author most recently of “Debating Yoga and Mindfulness in Public Schools: Reforming Secular Education or Reestablishing Religion?” (University of North Carolina Press, 2019). Brown has served as an expert witness in four legal challenges to school yoga and meditation, testifying for both parents and schools.