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Mindfulness Assistant Principal Failed to Articulate Religious Discrimination Claim

Bonnie Cole created mindfulness practices at her elementary school in the Cobb County School District. The practices included yoga, mindful quiet time, as well as decorating and painting. Parents were advised, and the school noted a 33% decrease in disruptive behaviors from the kids. However, some parents and a school board chair, all of whom were believed to have strong Christian beliefs, objected to the mindfulness practices. Ms. Cole was accused by these individuals of trying to indoctrinate the children into Buddhism. A prayer rally was held outside the school “for Jesus to rid the school of Buddhism” and her website had passages posted on it to attack her “evil practices.”

The principal brought in all the parents to discuss the mindfulness work going on in the school and answer any questions. One parent commented that it would be hard to move forward with Ms. Cole still working at the school. The school district ended up stopping mindfulness and Ms. Cole was transferred to another school that added an hour to her daily commute. She sued on multiple theories, including religious discrimination under Title VII.

The federal district court dismissed her claims for discrimination under Title VII, finding that there was no evidence that she was discriminated against based on her religion. The school district did not perceive her as Buddhist nor was she actually Buddhist. Her claim of retaliation (that she was transferred based on the Buddhist accusations) also failed because of a lack of evidence that she opposed an unlawful employment practice. Ms. Cole’s First Amendment free exercise argument was also dismissed because she was an admitted practicing Christian and she did not believe what she was teaching was “religious or based on religion.” The court did allow her Establishment Clause action to proceed but indicated it was a weak claim.