N.C. Christian Group Protests 'New Age' Classes

A Christian group in Raleigh, N.C., is objecting to stress relief and breathing exercise classes offered by elementary schools. They say the classes promote New Age and Hindu beliefs and violate students' constitutional right to freedom of religion. North Carolina Public Radio's Jessica Jones reports.

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In North Carolina, a public elementary school is being accused of promoting New Age religion. The school brought in a stress-reduction speaker who led students through breathing exercises and meditation. Her presentation has roots in Hinduism and Buddhism. That upset parents, and a Christian group is objecting, saying it was a violation of the First Amendment. From North Carolina Public Radio, Jessica Jones has the story.

JESSICA JONES reporting:

Emily Gunter travels all over the country giving workshops like this one for all ages, ranging from elementary schools to university students to corporate groups.

Ms. EMILY GUNTER (Founder, Rites of Passage Youth Empowerment Foundation): Let your thumbs touch. Right brain, left brain, and breathe in and breathe out.

JONES: Gunter's lessons are a combination of philosophies and meditative techniques that have their roots in Hinduism and Buddhism. And this is typical of the kind of instruction she gives in her workshops.

Ms. GUNTER: Say, `I love myself...'

Group of People: (In unison) I love myself...

Ms. GUNTER: `...unconditionally...'

Group of People: (In unison) ...unconditionally...

Ms. GUNTER: `...just the way I am.'

Group of People: (In unison) ...just the way I am.

Ms. GUNTER: `And all of my power...'

Group of People: (In unison) And all of my power...

Ms. GUNTER: `...and my magnificence...'

Group of People: (In unison) ...and my magnificence...

Ms. GUNTER: `...as I'm inspired...'

Group of People: (In unison) ...as I'm inspired...

Ms. GUNTER: `...by my purpose...'

Group of People: (In unison) ...by my purpose...

Ms. GUNTER: `...and my greatness...'

Group of People: (In unison) ...and my greatness...

Ms. GUNTER: `...in the loving, nurturing light...'

Group of People: (In unison) ...in the loving, nurturing light...

Ms. GUNTER: `...of my source.'

Group of People: (In unison) ...of my source.

Mr. STEVE NOBLE (Chairman, Called2Action): My initial reaction was it sure sounds like New Age, and I immediately equate New Age to a religion. It's a type of religion; it's a type of way of living your life.

JONES: Steve Noble is the chairman of Called2Action, a Christian advocacy group in Raleigh that entrusts itself with defending family and social values. Noble says he first heard of the presentation from a member of his group whose child attends Partnership Elementary School. Noble says the parent wishes to remain anonymous.

Mr. NOBLE: I think the number one thing for her was that it disturbed her children, and they were confused. And they're growing up in a Christian home, so they know, as a Christian, as a young Christian, where their source is for dealing with life and trouble. And this was all counter to that.

JONES: Christian parents, Noble says, would rather teach their children how to deal with stress by praying and reading the Bible at home. His group doesn't want public schools to promote any faith, Christian or otherwise. But while Gunter has written books about spirituality, she says she's not advocating any specific religion.

Ms. GUNTER: My whole thing is to get people to their own truth, so they can get to their own peace.

JONES: This isn't the first time parents have protested presentations like Gunter's. Two years ago a group of Christian parents in Aspen, Colorado, succeeded in eliminating all religious references from a yoga program in public schools. In the 1970s, courts in New Jersey banned transcendental meditation from classrooms. Attorney David Gibbs is representing Called2Action in this case. He has asked the Raleigh school district to come up with a policy to prevent programs like this from happening again.

Mr. DAVID GIBBS (Attorney): When you are talking about the emptying of the mind and connecting with the spirit and some of the other things that are done through meditation and other techniques, I think very quickly you can cross the line into more of a spiritual domain. And I think in this case, the school clearly crossed the line.

JONES: Administrators at the school won't comment. Attorneys for the district say they're conducting an independent review to see if the classes did cross the line. Professor Ira Lupu of George Washington University Law School has taught and written extensively on the religion clauses of the First Amendment.

Professor IRA LUPU (George Washington University Law School): This question certainly seems close enough that whether or not, in the end of the day, a court would say, `Oh, yes, she was in that school doing a religious exercise,' that if I were a principal or an administrator of a school, I would have been very sharply inclined to exclude that sort of program from public school.

JONES: A spokesman for the school district says administrators hope to respond to the Christian group soon. Meanwhile, Emily Gunter says her speaking schedule for the next six months is almost completely full. For NPR News, I'm Jessica Jones.

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