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Religion and the Law

Lawsuit Over Chicago Public School Transcendental Meditation Program Can Go Forward


From Separation of Hinduism from Our Schools v. Chicago Public Schools, decided Friday by Judge Matthew F. Kennelly (N.D. Ill.):

From 2015 to 2019, students and teachers in a handful of Chicago's public schools participated in a program called "Quiet Time." The plaintiffs in this case allege that Quiet Time included elements of both the Hindu religion and a practice known as Transcendental Meditation. In this suit, the plaintiffs assert two claims….

Quiet Time took place during the school day and used space on school property. The program consisted of two 15-mintues meditation sessions—one in the morning and one in the afternoon—on every school day. Sessions were typically led by Transcendental Meditation instructors who were certified by the Maharishi Foundation, a not-for-profit organization founded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who developed the Transcendental Meditation technique. When a Transcendental Meditation instructor was unavailable, CPS teachers were expected to lead meditation sessions.

Though defendants represented Quiet Time as non-religious in nature, as discussed below, the plaintiffs allege that the program had what they call "hidden religious" elements….

Quiet Time required participation in a "Puja" initiation ceremony. Students were expected to "actively participate" in the ceremony.  The Puja ceremonies were led by the Transcendental Meditation instructors. During the ceremony, items were placed around a picture of Guru Dev, a former teacher of the Maharishi. After the items were "presented" to the picture of Guru Dev, the Transcendental Meditation instructor chanted in Sanskrit and performed rehearsed movements.  Translated into English, the words chanted in Sanskrit included "statements recognizing the power possessed by various Hindu deities and invitations to those same Hindu deities to channel their powers through those in attendance." …

When students were taught to meditate, they were instructed to "silently repeat" an assigned mantra to assist them in their meditation. Students were told to use only the mantra that had been assigned to them by their Transcendental Meditation instructor. The mantras were in Sanskrit. Though students were taught how to pronounce their mantra, they were not told the meaning of the words. Instead, the Transcendental Meditation instructors told students that the mantras were "meaningless sounds."  The plaintiffs assert that, to the contrary, the mantras "honor or reference specific Hindu deities." …

Students in Quiet Time were asked to keep to an oath of secrecy. The oath required them to keep their experience in the program secret from others, including their parents, guardians, and other students. Instructors explained that failing to keep this "oath of secrecy" would make the practice of Transcendental Meditation "wholly ineffective." …

To indicate the beginning of a meditation session, the Transcendental Meditation instructor rang a small handheld bell known as a "Ghanta." The plaintiffs allege that these "ritual bell[s]" are commonly used in Hindu religious practices and that, in Hinduism, bells are "used to indicate a desire to interact with a deity and to prepare a listener's mind [for] said interaction." …

The court allowed former student Amontae Williams' claim under the Establishment Clause, Free Exercise Clause, and the Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act to proceed against the school. Most of the discussion was about procedural matters, such as standing and statutes of limitations, but here is a substantive snippet:

[The Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act provides:] "Government may not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, unless it demonstrates that application of the burden to the person (i) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and (ii) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest." … Illinois courts have said that "the hallmark of a substantial burden of one's free exercise of religion is the presentation of a coercive choice of either abandoning one's religious convictions or complying with the governmental regulation." …

Amontae [Williams]… contends that he was coerced to participate in Quiet Time's daily components, that he was assigned a mantra, and that he was pressured to take part in a Puja ceremony. Amontae also alleges that after he learned of the "hidden religious nature" of Quiet Time, he sought to tell students about his suspicions and was reprimanded and threatened with suspension. Finally, Amontae claims that while participating in the program, he suffered a possession-like experience that he describes as contrary to his religious upbringing.

Amontae has sufficiently alleged that he was presented with a coercive choice to participate in a program that was contrary to his religious beliefs and suffered harm as a result. His allegations are sufficient to state a claim under IRFRA and more than sufficient to provide notice of his claim to the Board….