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Yoga doesn’t violate the Establishment Clause If you are hunting for an Establishment Clause violation, you will have to keep looking.

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Ryan Colby 202-349-7219

The Presidential Challenge, a White House initiative to help Americans become more physically active, has included yoga as one of the options for pursuing PALA, the Presidential Active Lifestyle Award. According to the White House, yoga is “a universal language of spiritual exercise in the United States, crossing many lines of religion and cultures.”

But if the White House is spending money to promote yoga, isn’t that a violation of the Establishment Clause?

It’s not. The Establishment Clause could remind one of the obstacles encountered in the children’s book, Going on a Bear Hunt. In search of a bear, the reader encounters a field, a river, a cave that must be traversed. We can’t go around it, we can’t go over it, we must go through it! The Establishment Clause is similar. You can’t go around it, you can’t go over it, but there MUST be a way to go through it without eradicating all mention of religion from the public square. The North Carolina legislature wanted to go around it. But states can’t simply disavow the Constitution and establish their own state church. FEMA tried to hide behind it. But Congress believes that houses of worship are deserving of the same federal assistance as other community buildings and overruled FEMA’s objections. Some folks want to over-enforce it by using it to sweep any mention of religion out of the public square. But the Establishment Clause is not optional. Nor is it a bully pulpit for state-enforced secularism. And it does not prohibit any government funds from touching anything that could ever be religious.

To “go through” the Establishment Clause, government action must meet three requirements: it must have a secular purpose, it must not have the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion, and it must not result in excessive government entanglement with religion. PALA’s purpose is to encourage Americans to be more active, and the primary effect is likely Americans who are more physically healthy, not more Americans who are Hindu. And there is no hint of entanglement here: the government isn’t getting involved in the practice of religion at all. PALA passes the test with flying colors.

But this doesn’t concede that encouraging yoga is the same as endorsing Hinduism. Just like teaching Algebra doesn’t promote Islam, and reading the Psalms as poetry in school doesn’t promote Judaism, just because yoga was derived from a religious tradition doesn’t mean that it must be a religious activity. At the end of the bear hunt, the children find their bear, and they run back through all the obstacles they encountered. But yoga is nothing to be afraid of, and if you are hunting for an Establishment Clause violation, you will have to keep looking.