Today we welcome a guest post from Candy Gunther Brown, author of Debating Yoga and Mindfulness in Public Schools: Reforming Secular Education or Reestablishing Religion?, just published by UNC Press.
Yoga and mindfulness activities, with roots in Asian traditions such as Hinduism or Buddhism, have been brought into growing numbers of public schools since the 1970s. While they are commonly assumed to be secular educational tools, Candy Gunther Brown asks whether religion is truly left out of the equation in the context of public-school curricula. An expert witness in four legal challenges, Brown scrutinized unpublished trial records, informant interviews, and legal precedents, as well as insider documents, some revealing promoters of “Vedic victory” or “stealth Buddhism” for public-school kids. The legal challenges are fruitful cases for Brown’s analysis of the concepts of religious and secular.
Here, Brown discusses her book with UNC Press Publicist Alison Shay, and how she became an expert witness in legal proceedings over the legality of yoga and meditation in the public schools.
Debating Yoga and Mindfulness in Public Schools is available now in both print and ebook editions.
How I Became an Expert Witness on Yoga and Meditation
Alison Shay: When did you first think about testifying as an expert on yoga and meditation?
Candy Gunther Brown: When I started graduate school at Harvard in 1993, I never imagined studying yoga or meditation, let alone serving as an expert witness in four legal challenges over whether these practices are too religious to be taught in public schools. Neither did I suspect that more lawsuits—over teaching mindfulness and banning yoga—might be on the horizon.
This isn’t to say that I had no prior interest in religion or law. Growing up, I became obsessed with television courtroom dramas: Perry Mason, LA Law, Law & Order, Against the Law, among others. As a Harvard undergraduate, my favorite elective was a constitutional law class at Harvard Law School; the best part was arguing as an attorney before a moot Supreme Court. I majored in History and Literature and somehow always gravitated to religious subjects. I planned to attend law school. I applied and was accepted by Stanford, Harvard, and Yale, and I deferred admission at Yale Law School. I knew I would love law school, but I worried that I would hate the practice of law—and so I decided to first spend a year working as a paralegal. Now that was a self-fulfilling prophecy. It took me less than two weeks to come to detest the politics and billable hours. So, I applied to graduate school and accepted Harvard’s invitation to return and study the History of American Civilization. I again gravitated to religious subjects. I studied many religious and spiritual traditions, but I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation and first book about evangelical Christians who had played an important role in shaping American culture.
AS: What events led up to your first experience testifying as an expert witness?
CGB: My first two faculty appointments were in departments of History (Vanderbilt University) and American Studies (Saint Louis University). In 2006, I moved into a department of Religious Studies at Indiana University. This shift pushed me to think more comparatively, since I now had colleagues who specialized, for instance, in Hinduism and Buddhism. I wrote and edited several additional books about Christianity for major university presses such as Harvard and Oxford, but I also started writing more about other religious and spiritual traditions. One of these books, The Healing Gods: Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Christian America, was in press, and I was taking a much-needed sabbatical in the UK, when two law-professor colleagues sent me word of a developing legal challenge to public-school yoga in California. They thought I might be interested because Healing Gods includes a chapter on yoga, and the conclusion assesses the constitutionality of public-school programs. I e-mailed book announcements to the lawyers named in news coverage, hoping that my academic research might inform popular discussions. I expected that to be my only involvement. Several weeks later, the lawyer representing concerned parents e-mailed me, asking if I would consider serving as an expert witness. He wanted me to explain academic and legal definitions of “religion” and “yoga” in a written declaration and possibly to testify in court. I had never before served as an expert witness, but I had given many media interviews and public lectures to community audiences in the line of service as a university professor, so I agreed.
AS: Why did you write a book about your expert witness experiences?
CGB: I planned to conduct some research on the specific yoga program, write up my findings for a short declaration, possibly fly in and out to testify, and move on with my regular work. I did testify in court—for six hours. What I discovered along the way was so much more complex and fascinating than what I anticipated that I devoted six years to writing a book: Debating Yoga and Mindfulness in Public Schools: Reforming Secular Education or Reestablishing Religion?.
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