SAN FRANCISCO – Marin County may be etched in the public imagination as a liberal land of hot tubs, aging hippies and free thinkers, but even a bastion of alternative spirituality apparently has its limits.
Plans for a high school meditation club funded by filmmaker David Lynch evaporated this week after parents caught wind that students would be taught Transcendental Meditation, the method developed by a one-time spiritual teacher to The Beatles, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
Amid protests that TM was a form of religious practice and therefore inappropriate for a public school, the David Lynch Foundation on Tuesday withdrew the $175,000 it had pledged to Terra Linda High School in San Rafael.
The grant would have provided funds for 250 students and 25 staffers to practice TM, a meditation style past adherents claimed allowed them to levitate. Lynch, best known as the director of dark, surreal films like “Eraserhead” and “Blue Velvet,” has meditated for more than 30 years and credits TM for nourishing his creativity.
“Not only does it reduce stress in the body, but the research shows it wakes up the brain. So the child is actually able to absorb more knowledge and do better on exams,” said Bob Roth, the Lynch foundation’s vice president. “Also, the child is happier.”
But an information meeting for Terra Linda parents about the program last week turned chaotic, with one parent rushing the stage to denounce TM as a cult.
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Others said they felt TM was too close to a religion and therefore should not be promoted as a student activity, leading a conservative legal organization to consider suing the school for violating the separation of church and state.
– Is TM a religion?
Alternative forms of spiritual expression are nothing new in Marin, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. Flower children of the 1960s flocked to the county’s coastal bluffs and rolling hills after they decided to settle down and raise families.
In more recent years, Marin County has become one of the most affluent in the country. That wealth has brought with it the kind of high-pressure academic environments common to schools in prosperous communities.
Still, Terra Linda, located in the town of San Rafael, was one of the last places the Lynch Foundation expected to find resistance.
Since last year, the foundation has given more than $3 million to fund TM programs at 20 public, private and charter schools from Detroit to Washington, D.C., without causing a stir, according to Roth.
Terra Linda Principal Carole Ramsey said interest in meditation had grown recently at the high school. A club started by a school health instructor there last year attracted 60 students.
“I think it helps them to calm their minds so that they are able to focus,” Ramsey said.
Ramsey blamed “a few individuals” for creating “an environment that has led to the withdrawal of this grant” and said the school would encourage students who remain interested in meditation to investigate alternative programs.
A federal appeals court in 1979 called TM a form of religious teaching and ruled the practice could not be taught in New Jersey public schools. The decision is often cited as a precedent in religion-in-public-schools cases.
Detractors who say TM has religious overtones usually point to an initiation ceremony where teachers invoke Hindu deities. But practitioners describe TM as a relaxation technique used by 6 million Americans of every religious persuasion.
Whether TM is religious or not, state education officials said that religion clubs are allowed in California public schools under certain conditions.
“You can have a religious club on campus as long as its student-run and there’s no church affiliation,” said Pam Slater, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Education.
Ramsey said the Terra Linda TM club would have met those criteria. Students would meditate twice a day – once before school, and once after school – and not during school hours, and participation was voluntary, she said. Religious clubs, including a Christian club, have existed at the school without stirring debate, she said.
Sharing the chagrin of some Terra Linda parents over the TM club was the Pacific Justice Institute, a nonprofit legal group that often advocates for religion to play a greater role in public life. In this case, though, the group threatened to sue the high school over church-state boundaries.
“If it’s religious in nature and it involves faculty, then you would have a problem,” said Kevin Snider, chief counsel for the institute.
Still, some parents said they fully supported TM at Terra Linda, as did their kids.
Suzanne Rush of San Rafael has two daughters at Terra Linda, one a sophomore and the other a junior. She said one daughter planned to sign up for the TM club, and the other was considering it. Rush, who tutors elementary school students, had no problem with it
“I work with kids every day that are stressed out,” she said. “If can offer our kids something to help them de-stress and work up to their potential, then that’s what we want.”