Sudden Conversion: Religious Right Warms Up To Church-State Separation In Calif. Yoga Case

The Religious Right seems to believe church-state separation should be ignored when conservative Christians want to use public schools to promote their faith but applied vigorously to every other religious group.

Religious Right groups spend a lot of time beating on church-state separation. TV preacher Pat Robertson once called that constitutional principle “a lie of the left” and said it comes from the old Soviet Constitution.

Not to be outdone, Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association asserted that Adolf Hitler invented church-state separation.

Others have been less hyperbolic but have still made it clear that they’re no fans of the handiwork of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

Take Alan Sears, for example. Sears runs the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the nation’s largest Religious Right legal group. He once called the church-state wall “artificial.”

Funny, though, how that “artificial” wall that the Religious Right tells us over and over doesn’t exist and was never intended by the Founding Fathers can come in handy sometimes – like when the right wing wants to attack yoga in public schools.

In Encinitas, Calif., an attorney named Dean Broyles has filed suit against the Encinitas Union School District, asserting that a voluntary yoga program for students violates church-state separation. Broyles runs a small legal outfit called the National Center for Law and Policy, which, according to its website, defends “faith, family and freedom.”

Broyles is proud of his association with the ADF and notes that he “has received extensive training in pro-family, pro-life and pro-religious liberty matters at ADF’s outstanding National Litigation Academies (NLA). Because of Dean’s pro-bono work, he was invited to receive special training at ADF’s advanced NLA. Dean is proud to be an ADF affiliate attorney and member of ADF’s honor guard.”

Was Broyles asleep when Sears explained that separation of church and state doesn’t exist? How else can we explain his use of the principle in this lawsuit?

Or could it be that Broyles and the ADF are just being hypocritical? They have no use for separation of church and state when they’re trying to inject fundamentalist Christianity into the public schools. When that’s their game, they tell the courts, the media and the American people that separation is not a valid legal principle. When they’re attacking what they perceive to be school promotion of a religion they don’t care for, suddenly the church-state wall is their best friend.

Broyles is arguing that the yoga program violates Article I, Section 4 of the California Constitution. That provision is longer than the federal constitution’s First Amendment but essentially provides for the same measure of church-state separation. 

It reads in part, “Free exercise and enjoyment of religion without discrimination or preference are guaranteed…. The Legislature shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

In a press release, Broyles observes that the yoga program “represents a prime example of precisely why in America we wisely forbid the government from picking religious winners and losers, especially when you have a captive audience of very young and impressionable children as we do in our public schools.”

I agree wholeheartedly with that part about the dangers of the government picking religious winners and losers in public schools and the need to shield impressionable children from coerced religious activity. I just wish the ADF and its allies applied that standard to all religions.

I don’t know if Broyles has a case. A lot of people these days practice yoga for secular reasons – mainly as a relaxation and stress-reduction tool. But if Broyles can prove that the school’s use of it has a religious component or that it’s a feeder into a religious program, he deserves to win. The court has an obligation to consider the matter carefully.

I’m not bothered by the case. What bothers me is that the people behind it are raising church-state separation when they normally have no use for that concept. They seem to believe separation should be ignored when conservative Christians want to use public schools and other units of government to promote their faith but applied vigorously to every other religious group.  

Sorry, guys, it doesn’t work that way. Separation of church and state is the best policy for all religions – and that includes the ones you like best.