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Religion and the Law

Establishment Clause Related to School's Transcendental Meditation Program Sent to Transcendental Mediation

OK, not really, but the judge partly denied the motion for summary judgment, which would allow it to go to trial.


From Williams v. Bd. of Ed., decided Tuesday by Judge Matthew Kennelly (N.D. Ill.):

Williams attended Bogan Computer Technical High School (Bogan) in Chicago from fall 2017 until he graduated on June 18, 2019. While Williams was a student, Bogan implemented the Quiet Time program during the 2017–18 and 2018–19 school years….

According to Williams, his first experience with Transcendental Meditation as a part of the Quiet Time program occurred during the 2018–19 school year, when he was eighteen years old. He stated that he did not receive any letters about the program to give to his parents, but in October 2018 he and other students were given a document titled "Quiet Time Program Student Application for Transcendental Meditation Instruction Bogan High School." He also stated that he had been informed that Transcendental Meditation was "a really effective way to meditate and find yourself" and that he signed the form when it was first presented to him because he "was interested learning [meditation] properly."

Although the document included language stating that "learning the TM technique is an optional activity," Williams maintained it was "not optional" and "mandated" for students to sign the document. He explained that this was because students who initially chose not to learn Transcendental Meditation "eventually had to sign up," though "off the top of [his] head at the [moment]" he was unable to name any student who did not sign the document at first and later "was forced to do [Transcendental Meditation]." As for meditating during the fifteen-minute Quiet Time periods, Williams did not dispute that "if [he] didn't want to do [Transcendental Meditation], [he] didn't have to."

In contrast, Principal Aziz-Sims testified during her deposition that students could choose not to learn Transcendental Meditation. She stated that although students who were disrupting others during Quiet Time may have been reprimanded by a teacher, an administrator, or the principal herself, she was not aware of any Bogan student being disciplined for choosing not to learn Transcendental Meditation. She also testified that she approved giving students at least two letters explaining Quiet Time to their parents and allowing their parents to opt out of the program, in accordance with the school's policy regarding student involvement in other school activities.

Sunita Martin, an independent contractor with DLF [David Lynch Foundation] who was involved in implementing Quiet Time, similarly stated that students were given an "opt-out packet" and instructed to "take it home and give to their parent or guardian so that they could look it over and if their parent was not interested in them learning, then they would return that to us so we could know." Students who were interested in learning Transcendental Meditation "could fill out a one-page form with their name, the classroom that they were in so that we could keep record of who was interested and who was not." Various other employees of the University and DLF also testified that learning Transcendental Meditation was optional and that they did not witness any students being required to meditate during Quiet Time.

Williams signed the consent form and began learning Transcendental Meditation in October 2018. He and other students who learned Transcendental Meditation participated in a training course for one hour each day over the course of four days. On the first day of his training, Williams was present for a three-to-four-minute initiation ceremony. The initiation took place at a classroom at Bogan. It involved a Transcendental Meditation instructor placing assorted items in front of a painting of a man and speaking in Sanskrit. The items varied from one initiation to the next, but could include flowers, fruit, a candle, rice, water, and sandalwood powder. Williams testified that he mostly stood and observed the initiation, but at one point the instructor asked him to repeat words in a language that he did not understand. He stated that when he asked what the words he repeated meant, the instructor informed him that those words did not have any meaning. The instructor also gave Williams a "mantra" on his first day of training and instructed him to repeat it while meditating. Williams said that the instructor told him the mantra "didn't have any meaning" and was a tool to help him relax during meditation. He further testified that the "only thing [the Quiet Time staff] claim[ed]" over the course of the program was that "anything they were showing us had no deep significance to it or meaning behind it and just to do [it]." Students who did not learn Transcendental Meditation were neither present for the initiation nor given a mantra.

On occasion throughout the 2018–19 school year, Transcendental Meditation instructors came to Williams's classroom and led him and other students through a meditation. During those sessions, the instructors rang a bell to start meditation, told the students to think of their mantra during the meditation, and rang another bell to end meditation. Not every student in Williams's class meditated during the instructor-led meditations, and Williams stated that he personally practiced Transcendental Meditation approximately twenty-five percent of the time during the fifteen-minute Quiet Time periods until the spring of 2019.

Around that time, substitute teacher Dasia Skinner approached Williams and informed him that she believed Transcendental Meditation was a religious practice. Williams testified that after speaking with Skinner—who was neither trained in Transcendental Meditation nor involved in implementing Quiet Time—and doing "his own research," he concluded that the mantra he received and the initiation ceremony were related to Hinduism. Williams also agreed, however, that the meditation instructors and Quiet Time program staff did not instruct him to "believe in a particular religion or particular deity." Williams stopped practicing Transcendental Meditation after speaking with Skinner, and he graduated from Bogan when the school year ended on June 18, 2019.

The court allowed Williams' Establishment Clause claim to move forward:

The Court … [concludes that] there is a genuine dispute of material fact and a reasonable jury could—but is not guaranteed to—find that Quiet Time violated the First Amendment….

The defendants contend that Williams has failed to satisfy Kennedy v. Bremerton School District's "historical practices and understandings" test. They point out that Williams at most distinguishes Kennedy on the facts but does not discuss or analyze any historical practices relating to allegedly religious activities in public schools. Yet a historical analysis is not necessary in this case. The Court stated in Kennedy that it did not overrule prior decisions in which "[the Supreme Court] has found prayer involving public school students to be problematically coercive." And the Court stated that it "has long held that government may not, consistent with a historically sensitive understanding of the Establishment Clause, 'make a religious observance compulsory.'" A state actor therefore "may not coerce anyone to attend church" or participate in "a formal religious exercise," and "coercion along these lines was among the foremost hallmarks of religious establishments the framers sought to prohibit when they adopted the First Amendment."

The Seventh Circuit has recognized that one test for evaluating Establishment Clause challenges "is known as the 'coercion' test[,]" and "[t]he Supreme Court has applied this test in school prayer cases." Kennedy's extensive discussion of coercion indicates that this test is still good law, as the decision makes it clear that compulsory prayer or other religious activities in schools do not align with this country's historical practices and understandings. Although "[the Supreme Court] has long recognized as well that 'secondary school students are mature enough … to understand that a school does not endorse,' let alone coerce them to participate in, 'speech that it merely permits on a nondiscriminatory basis[,]' " there is also a "traditional understanding that permitting private speech is not the same thing as coercing others to participate in it." To the extent that a school program or activity that causes "some [to] take offense to certain forms of speech or prayer they are sure to encounter in a society where those activities enjoy such robust constitutional protection[ ]" does not violate the Establishment Clause, the Supreme Court expressly stated that this was because "[o]ffense … does not equate to coercion."

In applying the "coercion" test, the Seventh Circuit appears to have considered several factors, including whether (1) the school "had a captive audience on its hands," (2) there was any "religious activity in which [students] had to partake," and (3) students "felt pressured to support the religious aspects of the [activity] when they saw others … reflecting on the religiosity of the [activity.]" A state actor need not "act with a religious motive in order to fail the coercion test" when it conducts a school activity "in an indisputably religious setting" or chooses to "affirmatively to involve religion in [a] mandatory [activity]." Because there is sufficient evidence to permit a reasonable jury to find in Williams's favor on each of these considerations, the defendants are not entitled to summary judgment on this point.

A reasonable jury could find that the school had a "captive audience" for both the Quiet Time program overall and the Transcendental Meditation initiation ceremony. The defendants do not dispute that Quiet Time was part of the school schedule at Bogan, and students who did not practice Transcendental Meditation were nonetheless present in classrooms when instructor-led meditation occurred. Nothing in the record suggests that students who did not meditate during Quiet Time could leave the classroom or go elsewhere for those fifteen minutes, and Williams testified that an instructor took him to a separate classroom to witness the initiation ceremony. There is conflicting testimony regarding whether it was optional for students to learn Transcendental Meditation and thus experience the initiation. Williams stated during his deposition that it was mandatory to sign up to learn Transcendental Meditation, but Principal Aziz-Sims [and others] … testified that learning and practicing Transcendental Meditation was optional for students. Because "district courts presiding over summary judgment proceedings may not 'weigh conflicting evidence,' or make credibility determinations," the conflicting testimony of the various witnesses is sufficient to create a genuine factual dispute on whether there was a captive audience for at least the initiation ceremony.

That dispute aside, a reasonable jury could find that the program included a "religious activity in which [students] had to partake[.]"Specifically, there is evidence that a Transcendental Meditation instructor separated Williams from his classmates and brought him individually to a different classroom for the initiation. A reasonable jury could find that Williams, having arguably signed up to be trained in Transcendental Meditation, was then required to observe a religious ceremony in order to learn meditation and was misled about the ceremony's religious nature. The scenario as presented by Williams differs from the school prayer cases and the situation in Malnak v. Yogi (3d Cir. 1979), because there was no imposition or mention of any specific beliefs by the defendants. But the initiation ceremony distinguishes this situation from those cases involving the simple practice of Yoga in schools. The evidence in this record—most notably the details of the initiation ceremony—suggest that a reasonable jury could find that the Transcendental Meditation training as implemented was religious in nature or at least included a required religious ceremony.

{The defendants contend that the Court should not focus on "a one-time, three-minute expression of gratitude the instructor performed[,]" citing to the Supreme Court's statement that "[f]ocus exclusively on the religious component of any activity would inevitably lead to its invalidation under the Establishment Clause." Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984). Yet the statement in Lynch was in reference to a nativity scene in the context of a Christmas display, and the Supreme Court held post-Lynch that even a two-minute prayer was sufficient to violate the Establishment Clause. Lee v. Weisman (1992).}

Lastly, the Seventh Circuit considered in Concord whether students "felt pressured to support the religious aspects of the [activity] when they saw others … reflecting on the religiosity of the [activity]" in deciding whether a school activity was coercive. Freedom From Religion Found., Inc. v. Concord Cmty. Schs. (7th Cir. 2018). A reasonable jury could find that Williams felt pressured to support the purportedly religious aspects of Transcendental Meditation during the initiation ceremony, when he saw various items placed around a picture of a teacher of Transcendental Meditation while the instructor spoke in a language he did not understand. It is less clear whether Williams would have felt pressured to support the instructor-led meditation in the classrooms, as he conceded that he could not tell whether other students were meditating or "reflecting on the religiosity" of the meditation. There is a genuine factual dispute on this point….

[T]he defendants move for summary judgment on compensatory damages, arguing that Williams has not provided sufficient proof of emotional damages. There is no evidence that Williams sought medical or mental health care as a result of his alleged distress from the Quiet Time program, but "an injured person's testimony may, by itself or in conjunction with the circumstances of a given case, be sufficient to establish emotional distress without more." "The more inherently degrading or humiliating the defendant's action is, the more reasonable it is to infer that a person would suffer humiliation or distress from that action; consequently, somewhat more conclusory evidence of emotional distress will be acceptable to support an award for emotional distress." However, "[w]hen the injured plaintiff's testimony is the only proof of emotional damages, [he] must explain the circumstances of [his] injury in reasonable detail; [he] may not rely on conclusory statements."

Williams testified that he experienced mental health challenges and suicidal thoughts prior to participating in the Quiet Time program, but that Transcendental Meditation made his struggles worse. When asked to explain how his condition worsened, Williams stated that "not many know about it, but like I killed a couple animals, I was getting in trouble for starting fires in people's garages, trash every in the alley on fire[.]" He then appeared to clarify that he was referring to animals he had harmed before he learned Transcendental Meditation, but viewing this testimony in Williams's favor as the non-movant, the Court concludes that Williams has described his emotional distress injury in "reasonable detail." Furthermore, if a jury concludes that Transcendental Meditation was a religious practice and that Williams was coerced into learning it, that jury could also reasonably conclude that the experience would be "inherently degrading or humiliating" and accept Williams's more conclusory statements as proof of his emotional distress injury….