Pacific Justice Institute joins suit against Waldorf charter school

What’s the definition of a religion?

It sounds like a term paper assignment. But it’s also a central question in a lawsuit that seeks to remove public funding from a pair of “Waldorf-inspired” public charter schools that are part of the Sacramento City Unified School District.

The original lawsuit was first filed by a group called People for Legal and Non-Sectarian Schools (PLANS) back in 1998. The San Francisco-based group, which says they are largely made up of former Waldorf parents and students, claims that Waldorf schools teach a religious philosophy and therefore should not be eligible for taxpayer funding.

The original Waldorf schools were inspired by the teachings of philosopher Rudolph Steiner. PLANS claims that the schools teach Steiner’s philosophy of anthroposophy, which they say meets the legal definition of a religion. Anthroposophy does espouse what some would call a spiritual philosophy, emphasizing objectivity and intellectual understanding, but lacks what is many consider to be the normal trappings of a church, such as holding services.

The suit has followed a winding path, being dismissed and then revived multiple times. In November, U.S. District Court Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr. ruled that the group could not show evidence that anthroposophy is a religion in any legal sense.

On Feb. 9, the Pacific Justice Institute filed papers with the court to join PLANS on an appeal. The conservative legal group files lawsuits to defend the rights of Christians, often suing school districts.

“Here we have a set of beliefs, anthroposophy, which addresses the issue of life after death, espousing human-to-human reincarnation,” said the group’s president, Brad Dacus. “It’s a mix of Hinduism, Gnostic Christianity, and medieval occultism.” 

The institute is best known for its support of Proposition 8, the 2008 voter initiative to ban same-sex marriage in California, including a suit which attempted to force then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and attorney general Jerry Brown to defend the initiative in court. While speaking at a rally at the state capitol during the Prop. 8 campaign, Dacus compared same-sex marriage to the rise of Adolph Hitler in Germany. 

After 13 years of litigation, the lawsuit is older than most of the kids at one of the two schools in question, the Alice Birney Waldorf-Inspired K-8 School in the Pocket neighborhood of Sacramento. In fact, Alice Birney had a different name — Oak Ridge, later John Morse — and location when the suit started. The litigation also names George Washington Carver School of Arts and Science, a Waldorf-inspired high school that’s also part of Sacramento Unified.

Along the way, the litigation has cost the district a good deal of money, said communications director Gabe Ross, though he did not know the exact figure.

“At a time when we’re having to make horrible decisions from a budget standpoint, that we’re having to spend resources on this case is certainly a challenge,” Ross said.

Ross also scoffed the notion that anything taught at either school is “religious at all.”

“This notion that it’s this extreme curriculum is really not accurate,” Ross said. “It completely aligned with California state standards and our district standards.”

Even if PLANS and their allies could show that anthroposophy is a religion, Ross added, it’s also important to note that each school is merely “Waldorf-inspired.” “In a public school model, there are only certain elements that are used.”

Much of the differences revolve around the style of learning and the structure of the school day. Waldorf education has a focus on hands-on learning; students often build objects, keep journals and do other projects in addition to learning about a subject out of a book. Schools often have gardens and other areas where students can experience concepts directly.

There is also a heavy emphasis on the arts, and students are encouraged to play a musical instrument. The school day and school year operate differently, with longer blocks of time for lessons and intensive projects undertaken in three and four week chunks. And teachers often move up grade levels with the same class for three or more years at time.

But PLANS founder Debra Snell has claimed the curriculum often comes with much more. According to the PLANS website, the Grass Valley mom said she was originally a Waldorf supporter. But she said she soon found her local Waldorf school to be “rigid and authoritarian,” that mythology was “taught as history,” and the school had a “missionary” purpose.

Over the years, the group hasn’t had much success in the courtroom; the initial lawsuit was thrown out over a lack of legal standing back in 2001, among other setbacks. But they claim partial credit for blocking a proposed Waldorf-inspired charter school in Chico. They’ve also held rallies and “education campaigns” around the Sacramento Waldorf-inspired schools, hoping to dissuade parents from sending their children there.

The group’s lawsuit failed in November when they called a single witness, Betty Staley, founder of the Rudolf Steiner College in Fair Oaks. Staley is a member of the Anthroposophical Society in America—a group that has long claimed that it has nothing directly to do with Waldorf education—and her college is affiliated with a private Waldorf school located nearby.

The Pacific Justice Institute has enlisted John Calvert, an attorney known for his work on church-state issues, in a further attempt to show that anthroposophy is a religion. Calvert said the operative feature is not having worshippers who show up every Sunday and donate money.

“Religion is a broad concept,” as defined by the courts, Calvert said.

In fact, as defined by case law, even atheism is a religion. The definition, he said, is any “organized set of beliefs” around “ultimate questions” such as the meaning and origin of life, and whether or not it continues after death. He said he hopes to show the anthroposophy qualifies.

This, Calvert said, would clear the way for plaintiff attorneys to finally introduce evidence around the curriculum taught in Waldorf school: “The question of whether the school is promoting that religion, which is a completely different question.”

“We don’t teach any of that,” noted Allegra Alessandri, principal of George Washington Carver, now in its third school year.

She conceded that Steiner had “a lot of weird, esoteric ideas about reincarnation.” But students don’t study these or anything else about Steiner, she said. The school uses some of his education methods, and teaches about many different world religions in a historical context, but preaches no religious dogma at all to students.   

“Descartes was a Catholic,” Alessandri said. “He had religious views. We use Cartesian geometry in schools. That doesn’t’ mean there’s a conflict between church and state.”

Meanwhile, Alessandri noted that Waldorf-inspired charter schools are “popping up everywhere,” with more than two dozen in western states including not only California but Alaska, Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico and Oregon.

This may be part of the reason behind the lawsuit, said Patrice Maynard, leader for outreach with the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America. Her group represents private, independent Waldorf schools, not charter schools like the one in the lawsuit. But in both cases, she said, there has been an effort by conservatives in some places to make these schools seem controversial or “weird,” in order to dissuade parents fro
m sending their children to them.

She also pointed to a recent survey of adult Waldorf graduates. Less than one in four expressed any interest in Rudolph Steiner or anthroposophy.

“If we were trying to proselytize, we’re not doing a very good job,” Maynard said.

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