Is teaching yoga a violation of the Establishment Clause?

Yoga has its roots in India and Hinduism and Buddhism, though now many do it purely for the mental and physical wellbeing it provides practitioners without concerning themselves too much with the religious aspects. So is having a twice-weekly half-hour yoga program as part of the physical education curriculum in public schools a violation of the Establishment Clause, because it is promoting religion?

Some parents seem to think so and have filed a lawsuit to stop yoga instruction in their school district.

In this upscale, seaside suburb just north of San Diego, parents have filed a lawsuit arguing the Encinitas Union School District should do away with the yoga elective because the discipline is inherently religious, and the teaching of it in the public schools violates the First Amendment.

This “represents the clearest case I have observed of the government advancing, endorsing, or promoting religion,” said Dean Broyles, president of the National Center for Law and Policy, a nonprofit based in Escondido, Calif., dedicated to defending religious freedom, traditional marriage and the sanctity of life.

I think this suit will fail. In general, when adjudicating Establishment Clause cases, the courts have used the three-prong ‘Lemon test’ as well as the ‘endorsement test’, that I have written about many times before. The Lemon test says that a policy is in violation of the Establishment Clause if any one of the following conditions are not met:

First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose (the ‘purpose’ prong)

Second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion (the ‘effect’ prong);
Finally, the statute must not foster “an excessive government entanglement with religion.” (the ‘entanglement” prong)

The ‘purpose’ prong is adjudicated by looking at the history of the practice to see if the primary goal of its proponents was to introduce religion. Unless the proponents of this program in the school district can be shown to have had religious motives to advance Hinduism or Buddhism (which seems unlikely), this bar should be met.

In adjudicating the ‘effect’ prong, the judge will have to decide if the main effect of this program is to advance a religious idea as opposed to promoting physical and mental wellbeing. Again that should not be a difficult call. There may well be an incidental effect in that some people may become curious about the religious origins of this practice and even convert, but it is unlikely to be the main effect.

The ‘entanglement’ test can be met unless it turns out that the school district has entered into some sort of complicated relationship with religious groups to (say) provide instructors for the program.

The ‘endorsement’ test was articulated in the 1984 case Lynch v. Donnelly and says:

The second and more direct infringement [of the establishment clause] is government endorsement or disapproval of religion. Endorsement sends a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community. Disapproval sends the opposite message.

Does taking part in a yoga class send a message that Hindus and Buddhists are being singled out as being insiders? I think that is unlikely.

So on the surface, unless the trial throws up some surprising facts, I would expect the judge to dismiss this suit.


  1. A. Noyd says

    Not surprised that this, of all things, is the “the clearest case…of the government advancing, endorsing, or promoting religion” that a homophobic, anti-abortion fundamentalist has ever seen. I took a look at his org’s page and they clearly would like it a lot if the government did more advancing, endorsing and promoting of Christianity. It’s only other religions that are bad.

  2. Chiroptera says

    Well, Christianists have never really understood the Establishment Clause — or Constitutional Law in general, come to think of it. Their confusion in this particular matter is understandable.

  3. left0ver1under says

    If yoga is religion, should working be banned as a religious act (see Proverbs 13:4)?

    It’s only a “violation of the establishment clause” when the christians don’t like it. When the do like it, they’ll go through contortions to claim it isn’t.

  4. jamessweet says

    Some yoga instruction is pretty religious in nature. If, for example, the school were bringing in this type of instructor from outside, then the “entanglement” issue could definitely come into play.

    That said, a secular yoga program should be easy. It’s conceivable the school district fucked up, but barring that, it should be a clear decision.

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