Jun 4, 2021

Welcome to class, here’s your mantra

Steve West
June 1, 2021

An Illinois federal court ruled a student’s lawsuit against a Chicago public school program centered on transcendental meditation can proceed.

U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly’s May 21 ruling denied the city’s request to dismiss the lawsuit altogether. While the judge blocked the claims of three other plaintiffs, he allowed Amontae Williams and his father to sue. Williams was raised a Christian and claims that during his senior year at Chicago’s Bogan Computer Technical High School, he was coerced into participating in the so-called “Quiet Time” exercise and that he experienced direct, personal psychological injury as a result.

Quiet Time originated with the David Lynch Foundation, which promotes transcendental meditation with the goal of reducing stress and violence.

According to the complaint, the foundation partnered with the University of Chicago and persuaded the city’s board of education to greenlight a project implementing the program in a handful of public schools. Instructors were certified by the Maharishi Foundation, a not-for-profit organization founded by Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who developed the transcendental meditation technique.

Though proponents bill the techniques as “scientific,” the complaint details a program with significant religious ceremony, including Sanskrit chants and mantras allegedly directed at Hindu deities and a ritual bell, or “Ghanta,” that Williams said is often used to indicate a desire to interact with a deity. Instructors allegedly advised students to take an oath of secrecy and said breaking the oath would render the meditation exercises ineffective.

Williams claims the meditation instructors rebuffed his questions about the religious nature of the practices. He also says CPS officials sent him to the principal twice for sharing his concerns with classmates and that the principal threatened to suspend him if he didn’t stop talking about the exercise’s connection to Hinduism.

“Compelled prayer in public schools?” quipped legal commentator David French in a segment on his Advisory Opinion podcast. “Slam-dunk bad.” French and co-host Sarah Isgur conceded that meditation might be permissible in public school, but only one neutered of all religious ritual and content.

Judge Kennelly’s ruling means Williams and his father can try to pursue damages, even if they are nominal.


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