Cobb County school officials did not violate an assistant principal’s legal rights by transferring her from a school where Christian parents had complained about her introduction of yoga, the school district says in response to a federal lawsuit.
Bonnie Cole, who is now the assistant principal at Mableton Elementary School, asserted in a lawsuit filed in April that she was transferred from the “higher performing” Bullard Elementary in “a humiliating and public demonstration” when school administrators and ultimately the school board reacted to the objections of parents.
Her lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia says parents held a prayer rally at Bullard “for Jesus to rid the school of Buddhism,” even laying hands on her office window.
Cole contends that the version of yoga she brought to Bullard was stripped of religion; the district, in its response, filed Thursday, exploited that claim.
It says no violation of Cole’s rights could have occurred since, by her own admission, she was not engaged in a protected activity.
Either her version of yoga was not religious and therefore not subject to protection under the Civil Rights Act or the First Amendment, or it was religious and she might herself, as an official in a public school, have violated the constitutional requirement for a firewall between church and state: "The incurable flaw with this claim is that it is premised on activity - - her implementation of exercise and breathing techniques at her school - - that she herself admits were not at all religious in nature," says the defense filed by school lawyer Charles L. Bachman, Jr.
Though yoga has roots in Hinduism, the practice in the United States is typically reduced to a physical and meditative activity, focused on poses, breathing and sometimes chanting. Experts say it typically retains a “spiritual” element, though.
Yoga has been controversial among conservative Christians. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said in 2010 that yoga is derived from Eastern religions and is not a Christian pathway to God. A lawsuit in southern California alleged that yoga in school violated the First Amendment ban on government establishment of religion.
Cobb has a history of controversy over religion in schools. In 2002, the district put a sticker on science textbooks that said evolution is “a theory, not a fact” and encouraged students to read with an open mind, “critically considered.”
Cole contends the district was hypocritical in her case because emails containing “Christian-based Daily Scripture Devotionals” were sent to all staff. Her lawsuit claims Cobb “made clear to the community that religious activities will be allowed as long as they are part of the ‘accepted’ religion of Christianity” and that this was a “’de facto’ establishment” of religion.
The district’s response did not address such emails, but it does assert that Cole, who says she is a Christian, has no legal basis to claim she was victimized on religious grounds simply because members of the community perceived the yoga exercises to be religious.
Cole argues that her transfer resulted in a longer commute. She wants financial recompense for distress, inconvenience, income loss, “humiliation,” “indignities” and the effect on her career.
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