CRYSTAL LAKE, Ill. — School officials at an Illinois high school have agreed to stop organizing and leading students in transcendental meditation exercises, which are rooted in the Buddhist religious practice, during class time and as part of the honors English curriculum. Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute warned officials at Prairie Ridge High School in Crystal Lake that conducting the transcendental meditation exercises, even if students were allowed to opt out of them, put the school at risk of violating the Establishment Clause’s prohibition against the government endorsing a religion. The Rutherford Institute intervened after being contacted by a parent concerned about students being directed to assume the lotus position, conduct meditative chants, and lie on their backs with their palms to the floor in order to “become one with the earth.”
“Although school officials can teach about religion, they cannot indoctrinate students in specific religious beliefs,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “This is a victory for religious freedom.”
Doug Mann, the father of a ninth grader at Prairie Ridge High School in Crystal Lake, contacted The Rutherford Institute after his daughter was asked to participate in a transcendental meditation exercise in her ninth grade honors English class. The exercises were in connection with the study of the transcendental movement in literature. According to Mann, the teacher asked students to, among other things, assume the lotus position, conduct meditative chants, and lie on their backs with their palms to the floor in order to “become one with the earth.”
Although Mann voiced his objections to these practices as inconsistent with his family’s religious beliefs, he was told by the teacher that there was no problem because students were allowed the opportunity to opt out of the exercises. However, as Rutherford Institute attorneys pointed out in a letter to officials at Community School District 155, the federal courts have held that transcendental meditation is a religion and that school instruction in transcendental meditation violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
School officials were also informed that offering students an opt-out from a school-sponsored religious exercise does not absolve the school from having to abide by the First Amendment’s prohibition against government entities leading and organizing religious practices or endorsing a particular religion. Moreover, as Institute attorneys noted, in the context of student activities, there is an inherent coercion placed upon students to participate in school-sponsored religious activities due to peer pressure. Agreeing that such unconstitutional practices would no longer occur at the school, school officials indicated that they would also be relaying the Institute’s instructions on what schools can and cannot do in relation to teaching religion in the classroom with teachers in the English Department.
Nisha N. Mohammed is the press contact for the Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit legal and educational civil liberties organization which provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated.