By Sarah Grieco, Elena Gomez and Melissa Pamer, NBC Bay Area
A lawsuit has been filed against a San Diego-area school district for its student yoga curriculum, claiming the exercise classes are "inherently and pervasively religious."
The National Center for Law and Policy filed the lawsuit on Wednesday on behalf of Stephen and Jennifer Sedlock and their children, who are students in the Encinitas Union School District.
The district last fall began offering yoga during physical education classes. Children have the choice to opt out of the program.
The Sedlocks allege the school district is not complying with the California constitution’s right to religious freedom. The lawsuit also calls the children participating in the program "religious guinea pigs."
Encintas schools accepted a $533,000 grant for the yoga classes from the Jois Foundation, which the conservative legal firm that filed the lawsuit claims is a religious organization. The attorney who filed the suit called the relationship between the foundation and the school district "improperly cozy."
Jois Yoga states on its website that it works as an "extension of the Ashtanga philosophy and practice." The organization is based in Encinitas, where Ashtanga yoga was first introduced to the United States, according to the website.
The yoga group's foundation is focused on "educating the whole child" by bringing yoga to schools, particularly in underserved communities.
School district Superintendent Timothy Baird said he’s shocked a lawsuit was filed against the district.
"We have not stripped religion out of it. We never put religion in it," Baird said. "What we took out were cultural connections, so we don't use Sanskrit words. But basically what you have kids doing is stretching, moving, breathing. That's not religious."
An FAQ on the program on the district's website states: "There is no discussion of spiritualism, mysticism, religion in any context. The students simply perform the physical components of movement and breathing related to mainstream yoga."
Yoga originated thousands of years ago in India and is associated with Hinduism and other Eastern religions. In recent decades, it has become the subject of widespread practice across the United States, often with little spiritual element to classes.
In a press release issued by Escondido-based National Center for Law and Policy, attorney Dean Broyles said the Encinitas yoga program was a "breach of public trust" that sets a "dangerous precedent."
"This is frankly the clearest case of the state trampling on the religious freedom rights of citizens that I have personally witnessed in my 18 years of practice as a constitutional attorney," Broyles said.
The lawsuit, which alleges civil rights violations, was filed in San Diego Superior Court. It ultimately seeks to suspend the yoga program indefinitely and "restore traditional physical education to the district."
The National Center for Law and Policy is a nonprofit legal group focused on conservative causes, including religious freedom, as well as "the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, parental rights, and other civil liberties," according to its website.
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