Dec 2, 2018

Mom battles school board, saying yoga is against her family's religion

Gina Clarke says yoga can be a “very grey area,” which is why she wanted the religious accommodation for her kids.  (DREAMSTIME / TNS)
ISABEL TEOTONIO Education Reporter
Toronto Star
November 28, 2018

Gina Clarke was furious when her 8-year-old daughter came home from school in tears after doing a wellness day activity in her Grade 3 class.

“(My daughter) was very upset,” recalls the Vaughan mother. “She knew she did something she wasn’t supposed to.”

That something was yoga.

The Clarke family is Roman Catholic and doesn’t do yoga because it’s rooted in Hinduism. Whether or not Catholics should do yoga is debatable. Some believe physical aspects, such as poses, are acceptable, but spiritual elements, such as mantras and meditations, are not. And some, like the Clarkes, prefer to avoid yoga altogether.

So when her daughter came home that day in May 2017, Clarke was upset because she says she had asked the principal for a religious accommodation that excused her from the activity. She says the accommodation was granted, so she was stunned when her daughter said she had done yoga.

That set Clarke on a quest for answers up the ranks of the York Region District School Board, including speaking with the teacher, principal, superintendent, trustee and director of education. She also contacted Ontario’s education minister.

“My paper trail is a mile long,” says Clarke, a cancer scientist who keeps detailed notes and records. “The system has been completely unaccountable to us.”

The matter is expected to come up at the board’s Director of Education Performance Review Committee, which will meet in private on Wednesday. Recommendations made by the committee will be voted on by the board Dec. 11. Citing privacy reasons, board staff said they could not discuss specifics of this case.

Clarke is hoping, in part, for a full apology, greater accountability, and more transparency when it comes to investigations that she would like to see include more parent voice throughout.

According to documents Clarke gave the board, and in interviews with the Star, she says she requested a religious accommodation for her children in March 2017 at Mackenzie Glen Public School. It was triggered when her son came home and said his senior kindergarten class was doing Cosmic Kids Yoga. Clarke met with Principal Lorellie Munson.

“I said, ‘We don’t do this in our religion,’” recalls Clarke, who followed up with an email suggesting yoga be replaced in her son’s class with “alternative exercises which do not have religious origins so that (he) might not feel singled out.”

Her verbal request for an accommodation was granted by the principal, and her son never again participated in yoga. Clarke says she never filled out an official request form, which she later learned is board policy.

About two months later, she says her daughter came home crying, saying her class had participated in an activity and followed along to a video. At the end of the video, which credited The School Yoga Project, the girl realized she had unknowingly done yoga. Clarke later saw a photo on the teacher’s Twitter account that showed her daughter doing what appears to be the tree pose and a meditation practice, and reviewed the video. She spoke with the teacher, and the vice-principal to explain why yoga was incompatible with her faith.

“I really felt like I was viewed as having nine heads, regarding our beliefs,” says Clarke, who took her concerns to the superintendent. She also requested an immediate transfer of her children to another school.

A personnel investigation by Superintendent Paul Valle found there was no record of a request for religious accommodation on file.

“There was no intent to offend you in the matter of religious belief,” explained Valle to Clarke in a June 2017 email she shared with the Star. “In my communication and interviews with the school and staff, it was confirmed that the activities were focused on breathing, stretching and physical exercises and that the content presented had no spiritual or religious context.”

Clarke says she was upset because she felt like she was being told what is an acceptable belief for her and says faith accommodations don’t require a spiritual or religious context. She also felt shut out from the investigation process and couldn’t get answers on what steps were taken and what was asked during those interviews. The whole process was not transparent, she says.

Cecil Roach, Co-ordinating Superintendent of Education, Indigenous Education and Equity for the board, says his recollection is that Clarke’s wishes were accommodated and that the principal thought students had participated in a mindfulness activity and not yoga.

“Many schools in the province are doing mindfulness,” he told the Star. “This particular parent interpreted that as yoga.”

He says it’s hard to see how yoga would qualify as a faith accommodation, but says it was granted nonetheless to Clarke’s children.

According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, schools must consider accommodation requests for religious beliefs or practices that are sincerely held, and must accommodate them, unless there are reasons of undue hardship (health, safety, cost), or it significantly interferes with education. In some cases, for example, children are accommodated and exempt from physical education, music and dance classes.

Clarke says yoga can be a “very grey area,” which is why she wanted the accommodation for her kids, so they wouldn’t have to make difficult judgments. Some schools in the United States have even banned yoga because of the religious element.

At the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto, it’s not uncommon to receive inquiries about whether yoga is endorsed by the Catholic Church.

“It’s more than a simple yes or no response,” says Neil MacCarthy, spokesperson for Archdiocese of Toronto. “Exercise and physical activity, including stretching, is healthy and encouraged. However, the original proponents of yoga, and many who enjoy yoga today, view the activity as a spiritual practice. While no one tends to think of swimming or jogging as spiritual activities, yoga is different in that perspective. The stretching elements involved in yoga are not at issue but using the practice as part of a holistic approach to one’s spirituality would be of concern for many Catholics because of an incompatibility in what the two spiritualities aim to achieve.”

Clarke’s concerns made it all the way up to the school board’s new director, Louise Sirisko, who took over the role in January. She conducted her own review and in the summer shared her draft findings with Clarke, concluding that appropriate steps had been followed. Clarke provided extensive feedback, believing the board had failed to acknowledge mistakes, make anyone accountable and be transparent. In late October, she received a final response from Sirisko, who said the board responded to complaints in a “thorough and fulsome manner” and stuck with her original finding.

Clarke now hopes the committee will make recommendations so other families don’t go through what she did. She says if someone had apologized at the outset for a mistake or a misunderstanding, this matter would not have escalated.

“This started in the school and could easily have ended and been resolved in the school,” she said. “The whole system has failed us.”

Isabel Teotonio is a Toronto-based reporter covering education. Follow her on Twitter: @Izzy74

https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2018/11/28/mom-battles-school-board-saying-yoga-against-her-religion.html

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