First Amendment

Yoga class draws a religious protest

Will Carless, New York Times: By 9:30 a.m. at Paul Ecke Central Elementary School, tiny feet were shifting from downward dog pose to chair pose to warrior pose in surprisingly swift, accurate movements. A circle of 6- and 7-year-olds contorted their frames, making monkey noises and repeating confidence-boosting mantras.

Jackie Bergeron’s first-grade yoga class was in full swing.

“Inhale. Exhale. Peekaboo!” Ms. Bergeron said from the front of the class. “Now, warrior pose. I am strong! I am brave!”

Though the yoga class had a notably calming effect on the children, things were far from placid outside the gymnasium.

A small but vocal group of …

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Meditation activity draws concern

Lawerence Synett: Students in a freshman honors English class at Prairie Ridge High School were asked to assume certain positions, chant and lie on the floor as part of an activity connected to reading the novel “The Alchemist,” drawing a complaint from a father who is a minister and thought the exercise had religious overtones.

Teacher Christine Wascher let students opt out if they felt uncomfortable, but now has stopped what was intended as a new way to relate to the book.

“What she had them do was a mind-clearing visualization exercise that a parent felt was transcendental meditation,” Superintendent Jill Hawk said. “It was an activity to engage them in a part of the book that talks about being one with the earth.”

Last month’s activity was designed to help students forge a…

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deeper connection to the text, Principal Paul Humpa said, and was followed by Wascher leading an analysis of specific quotes from the book.

“A parent felt that this could be considered an endorsement of the religious practice known as transcendental meditation,” Humpa said. “This was never the intent of the teacher.”

Transcendental meditation, based on ancient Hindu writings, uses breathing exercises and certain body positions for relaxation. While schools and other government entities cannot lead or organize what could be considered religious practices or endorse a particular religion, Hawk said there’s a fine line between trying to engage students and accommodating everyone.

“In this case, we had a teacher using a creative activity to engage her students in good literature,” Hawk said. “If we have an upset parent, we want to know why and resolve it. In the same sense, I don’t feel that we should have to design our curriculum and instructional practices to the ideology of a certain group.”

Douglas Mann, an ordained minister who works for the Christian-based International Aid Services, took offense to what his daughter described from her class.

“We decided that the lesson plan that day involved transcendental meditation-type poses and postures,” Mann said. “It was quite concerning for me, from my background as an ordained minister and my understanding of transcendentalism, and not wanting my kids forced into those type of positions.”

Mann met with Wascher and the department head about the lesson plan, at which time it was decided the activity would no longer be used as a teaching tool.

He also contacted The Rutherford Institute, a non-profit conservative legal organization dedicated to the defense of civil, especially religious, liberties and human rights. The group sent a letter to the district demanding the activity stop and never happen again.

“Most teachers have no clue what they can or cannot do,” said John Whitehead, president of the institute. “Teachers are forced to do these inventive things that aren’t necessarily bad, but illegal.”

Mann was pleased with the outcome.

“I was very satisfied with their response and they assured me that was an isolated incident, and I believe that,” Mann said. “This is a wonderful teacher, who aside from this incident, we are very pleased with.”

Wascher could not be reached for comment.

This is the second activity at Prairie Ridge in recent months that’s drawn a parental complaint. Late last fall, a parent complained that “The Vagina Dance” used to teach students about the female reproductive system was inappropriate. It is no longer used.

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Councilwoman wants wants prayer back in Philadelphia schools

The U.S. Constitution may prohibit mandatory prayer in public schools, but it doesn’t prohibit schools from allowing students to pray on their own initiative, says City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who wants to encourage the practice.

“Students are free to pray alone or in groups as long as the activity is not disruptive and does not infringe on the rights of others,” according to a resolution adopted unanimously in Council yesterday at Blackwell’s request.

It calls for Council’s Education Committee, headed by Blackwell, to schedule hearings on prayer in Philadelphia public schools.

“We want to discuss the policy, see if it needs to be amended and certainly let the citizens know that the issue does exist,” Blackwell told reporters. “There is a way people can have free religious expression within schools.”

The U.S. Supreme Court issued several landmark rulings in the 1960s, first outlawing required prayer in New York State’s public schools and then overturning a Pennsylvania law that mandated Bible readings, as well as the Lord’s Prayer.

“In the relationship between man and religion, the state is firmly committed to a position of neutrality,” wrote…
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Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark.

The case originated in the Abington school district, where a student was reprimanded for reading from the Quran instead of the Bible.

Shana Kemp, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia School District, said that its current policies date to 1976, when the Board of Education required every school day to begin with the Pledge of Allegiance and one minute of silent meditation.

“During the period of silent meditation, pupils may choose to meditate or to remain silent, but school authorities may not suggest or direct the subject upon which pupils may meditate,” according to more detailed rules issued in 1979.

The rules for secondary schools were changed to require the Pledge of Allegiance and meditation period sometime during the school day, not necessarily at the beginning.

In other business, Council voted unanimously to put a question onto the May 17 primary election ballot, asking voters whether to create a 17-member “Job Commission” in a bid “to create and preserve private-sector jobs for Philadelphians.”

Both the mayor and Council would name commission members within 30 days. The panel would meet monthly to identify and evaluate the entities and factors affecting private-sector jobs, and then make recommendations for reform by early 2012, said Councilman Darrell Clarke, prime sponsor of the jobs proposal.

Council also approved a major rewrite of the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance, strengthening its penalties and extending it to discrimination based on genetic information, familial status or status as a victim of domestic or sexual violence.

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