Three days of trial have now been completed in the yoga lawsuit Sedlock v. Baird, et. al. And it’s not over yet. While the parties had agreed this would be a two day trial, the plaintiffs’ case, as presented by attorney Dean Broyles, has dragged on and on. Due to pre-planned vacation and trial schedules, the court has ordered a month-long hiatus in the proceedings. Trial will resume on Monday, June 24 with testimony from the Sedlocks and EUSD assistant superintendent Dr. David Miyashiro. Closing arguments will then proceed on Tuesday, June 25. Judge Meyer has indicated that closing arguments will be critical to his decision and he may even render a preliminary decision from the bench that day. CLG partner Dave Peck, who has been actively litigating the case on behalf of YES!, provides the following report:
DISPATCH FROM THE FRONT LINES:
Dear YES! Families: First and foremost, thank you so very much for your support of the EUSD yoga program and our efforts to protect it. Superintendent Baird, who has been at my side at counsel table throughout the trial, shares his gratitude to YES! for joining the fight. And what a fight it’s been…..
Many folks scoffed at the notion of this lawsuit and predicted it would be quickly tossed out of court. While such sentiments are understandable, most people seem to have underestimated plaintiffs’ resolve. Mr. Broyles, his clients and other yoga opponents have devoted significant resources to this case. For them, it’s a battle of good versus evil. Right versus wrong. They view us yoga supporters as naïve at best, blasphemous at worst. During a break in the proceedings Jennifer Sedlock even referred to me as “the enemy” while passing in the court hallway.
Like many conspiracy-theorists, plaintiffs see a hidden and evil agenda at work in the school district. They contend the overwhelming majority of us parents are just too blind to see it. We naively view yoga as just a great exercise program for our kids. That intended perception, in the words of plaintiffs’ retained religion expert Dr. Candy Brown, is just “camouflage.” For example, changing the names of the yoga poses to kid-friendly terms is a camouflage tactic according to Dr. Brown. She thus accused the school district of being complicit in such camouflage tactics.
According to Dr. Brown, the Jois Foundation is using EUSD yoga instructors as “foot soldiers” in furtherance of its Hindu agenda. These instructors are being used, whether they know it or not, to make yoga look like a benign exercise. Once kids/families buy-in to the physical and mental benefits, and are thus “hooked” on the program, they will become vulnerable to religious indoctrination in more advanced yoga classes in their later years. Dr. Brown even agreed with Judge Meyer when he commented that it sounded like she was describing yoga as a “gateway drug.”
I had the opportunity to vigorously cross-examine Dr. Brown. She tended to avoid direct questions and gave many long-winded, esoteric responses. Judge Meyer noted that Dr. Brown, who has a book on religion coming out this summer, seemed to be relishing her moment in the spotlight. Her testimony was indeed akin to a doctorate level university lecture.
Dr. Brown testified that, in addition to yoga, she believes karate, tae kwon do (an Olympic sport), acupuncture and chiropractic care are each religious practices. Citing a variety of suspect evidence, Dr. Brown opined that the EUSD yoga program is “pervasively religious” even though concepts of religion, spirituality, devotion, belief, etc. are not discussed in the classes. In fact, she claimed that by stripping the program of all conspicuous religious content the district was engaging in further “camouflage” of the true Hindu agenda. Even just posing one’s body in certain positions – without intent, words or conscious thought – constitutes religious practice according to Dr. Brown. The inference was that these yoga poses have some magical, transformative qualities. Importantly, there has been no evidence that anyone in the district believes the poses are supernatural and the kids are certainly not being taught such nonsense.
Plaintiffs have also made much ado about the Jois Foundation and its promotion of health and wellness. Claiming the foundation is a thinly-veiled vehicle for Hinduism, Mr. Broyles and Dr. Brown suggested something sinister is at work in the district partnering with this organization. As we have pointed out, however, the district has also partnered with the YMCA and Leichtag Foundation, organizations which respectively promote Christian and Jewish values. While we ALL agree that religion has no place in the public schools, the mere fact that program funding is received from religiously-affiliated organizations has never been held unconstitutional. In the eyes of the law it’s the programs which matter, not their funding sources. (And to be clear, there is no evidence that the Jois Foundation seeks to promote some uniquely Hindu values.)
The character development portions of the health and wellness curriculum have also been scrutinized, with plaintiffs questioning why such things are being taught in P.E. The suggestion, of course, is that such character teachings must have a religious slant. Jen Brown, the EUSD yoga instructor at Capri (who was an excellent witness for our defense), pulled the rug out from under such arguments. She explained at length how she occasionally teaches kids about kindness, cleanliness (“We wash our hands before we eat”) and empathy (“How would you feel if something mean was said about you?”). In response to my questioning, Ms. Brown (Jen Brown, not plaintiffs’ expert Dr. Brown) acknowledged that no parents have ever complained about the content of the occasional character lessons. Indeed, regardless of our respective religious beliefs, these character lessons are consistent with concepts we ALL want our kids to understand.
Jen Brown is a very experienced Ashtanga yoga practitioner and instructor who has studied extensively in India and elsewhere. While plaintiffs have advanced repeated claims that Ashtanga yoga is inherently religious, Ms. Brown easily debunked such claims. She credibly explained that, despite her years of Ashtanga exposure, she has never been taught anything about Hinduism or religion. She further detailed the numerous ways in which the EUSD yoga program is wholly distinct from Ashtanga or any other form of yoga. Indeed, all evidence supports that “EUSD Yoga”, as it’s been called during the trial, is its own unique kid-friendly style of yoga. Even if Ashtanga yoga is perceived by plaintiffs to be inherently religious or spiritual, that’s NOT what our kids are being taught. Even Dr. Brown, the plaintiff’s expert, conceded that Ashtanga requires strict adherence to a specific sequencing of poses which is substantially different from what’s being taught at EUSD.
Mr. Broyles grilled Jen Brown at length. He suggested she worships the sun, and teaches students to do so, by performing a “sun salutation” yoga pose in which the arms are stretched upward. Ms. Brown explained how the pose at issue, part of an “opening sequence” utilized in many forms of yoga, is simply an initial stretch of the back and shoulder muscles designed as a warm up for more challenging poses. Broyles pressed on, seeking an admission that the yoga poses she teaches are not mere exercises but, in fact, a means by which she seeks to establish a “connection with the divine.” Ms. Brown repeatedly testified she had no idea what Mr. Broyles was talking about. In sum, she was impressive, engaging and sincere on the stand. I suggest we all give Jen our thanks next time we see her.
Ultimately, the constitutional question to be resolved by Judge Meyer is whether, when viewed objectively by a student, the yoga program promotes or inhibits religion. Notably, the “objective observer test” does not contemplate what a biased religious studies professor might perceive. Indeed, after listening to Dr. Brown, I am convinced that she could find religious elements in virtually any activity our kids participate. Noting her implication that religion is everywhere, Judge Meyer mused that perhaps all parents should simply home school their kids if there’s such a great concern about the slippery-slope influences of a public education. The reality is that kids are not programmed to view stretching or exercise as religious – unless they are somehow pre-programmed to look at it that way. Objectively, EUSD yoga is as secular as an aerobics class.
While there’s still more evidence to be offered during this trial, I really like our chances. From both constitutional and common sense perspectives, the evidence is on our side. Again, your support is greatly appreciated.
All the best,