Global Freedom of Expression

Malnak v. Yogi

Closed Mixed Outcome

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Books / Plays, Public Speech
  • Date of Decision
    February 2, 1979
  • Outcome
    Decision - Procedural Outcome, Affirmed Lower Court, Decision Outcome (Disposition/Ruling), Law or Action Overturned or Deemed Unconstitutional
  • Case Number
    592 F.2d 197
  • Region & Country
    United States, North America
  • Judicial Body
    Appellate Court
  • Type of Law
    Constitutional Law
  • Tags

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the decision of the United States District Court of New Jersey, which found that the teaching of an elective course in five New Jersey high schools constituted an establishment of religion in violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The course “The Science of Creative Intelligence-Transcendental Meditation” (SCI/TM) was taught by someone trained by the World Plan Executive Council, and organization dedicated to disseminating the teachings of SCI/TM and required students to participate in an off-campus weekend ceremony in which they had to recite Sanskrit chants and make offerings. The Court, using the three-part test developed by the Supreme Court in Committee for Public Education v. Nyquist, determined that the classes violated the Establishment Clause and upheld the lower court’s injunction.

Judge Adams’ concurring and extensive opinion has influenced how “religion” is interpreted in the context of the first amendment, noting that the law had moved towards a broader approach in recognition of the fact that adherence to the traditional definition would deny religious identification to the beliefs adhered to by millions of Americans.


The course “The Science of Creative Intelligence – Transcendental Meditation” (SCI/TM) was offered as an elective at five New Jersey high schools during the 1975-76 academic year. The course was taught by teachers trained by the “World Plan Executive Council” an organization devoted to disseminating the teachings of SCI/TM which consists in the belief that “pure creative intelligence is the basis of life, and that through the process of Transcendental Meditation students can perceive the full potential of their lives”. [p. 198]

The process of “transcendental meditation” relied on the use, while meditating, of a sound aid known as “mantra”. According to SCI/TM, meditators need to attend a ceremony called a “puja” in order to receive their mantra. Students were required as part of the SCI/TM course to attend a puja ceremony. These ceremonies were conducted off school premises on a Sunday, lasted between one and two hours, and required students to stand or sit in front of a table while the teacher sang a chant in Sanskrit and made offerings to a deified “Guru Dev”. [p.198]

A number of plaintiffs issued proceedings in the United States District Court for New Jersey seeking to enjoin the teaching of the SCI/TM course in public high schools on the basis of the non-establishment clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The plaintiffs included taxpayers, parents of children who attended the schools where the course was taught, a clergyman and the organization “Americans United for the Separation of Church and State”.

The defendants, among them Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Spiritual Regeneration Movement Foundation, World Plan Executive Council—United States American Foundation For Creative Intelligence and various educational authorities and officials, maintained that their activities were non-religious in nature. However, after analyzing the textbook used for the course, the content of SCI/TM teachings and the nature of the puja ceremony the District Court concluded that SCI/TM constituted a form of “religion” for first amendment purposes. Thus, the District Court enjoined the teaching of the SCI/TM course in New Jersey public high schools.

In reaching its conclusion, the District Court reviewed several decisions in which the Supreme Court had adopted a broad view of the meaning of “religion”.  However the District Court did not attempt to provide a definition of religion noting: “The court finds it unnecessary to improvise an unprecedented definition of religion under the first amendment because it appears that this case is governed by the teachings of prior Supreme Court decisions”.

The defendants appealed the decision to the United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit, which issued its decision February 2, 1979.

Decision Overview

The issue for the United States Court of Appeals Third Circuit to decide was whether the teaching of the “The Science of Creative Intelligence – Transcendental Meditation” (SCI/TM) course as an elective in New Jersey public schools constituted an establishment of religion in violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution.

The Court agreed with the District Court’s finding that the SCI/TM course was religious in nature noting: “careful examination of the textbook, the expert testimony elicited, and the uncontested facts concerning the puja convince us that religious activity was involved” [p. 199]

The Court considered whether the teachings and activities of SCI/TM were religious in nature to be the determinant factor, given governmental action was apparent. The Court made reference to the test developed by the Supreme Court in Committee for Public Education v. Nyquist, 413 U.S. 756 for assessing possible violations of the first amendments’ non-establishment clause namely that “to pass muster, the action in question must: (1) reflect a clearly secular legislative purpose; (2) have a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion; and (3) avoid excessive government entanglement with religion”. The Court then noted that the District Court had correctly applied this test in finding that the SCI/TM course had the primary effect of advancing religion and religious concepts and that the use of public school facilities for the teaching of the course constituted “excessive governmental entanglement with religion”. [p. 199]

The appellants argued that, even if the SCI/TM course was to be accepted as clearly religious, the religious effect of the course was not significant. However, the Court was not persuaded by this argument. Thus, the Court affirmed the decision of the District Court to enjoin the teaching of the SCI/TM course in New Jersey public high schools.

Judge Adams issued a concurring opinion in which he sought to determine the meaning of “religion” in the context of the first amendment. For this purpose, he conducted an extensive review of judicial precedent. First, he examined cases in which the traditional theistic definition of religion, which dominated Supreme Court case law for many years was applied.  He highlighted Davis v. Beason, 133 U.S. 333, 10 S.Ct. 299, 33 L.Ed. 637 (1890) where the Supreme Court had declared: “[T]he term “religion” has reference to one’s views of his relations to his Creator, and to the obligations they impose of reverence for his being and character, and of obedience to his will”.  He noted that under this theistic view, SCI/TM could not be considered a religion as it did not focus on the belief in a supreme being. [p. 201]

He then proceeded to examine the case-law on school prayers which required students to recite prayers in public schools and which had been found to be in violation of the first amendment, even when the prayers were non-sectarian in nature. The judge conceded that the puja chant, when translated into English, was similar in content to prayers whose imposition on public school students had been held to be unconstitutional. However, he considered that precedent was not directly applicable highlighting, among other factors, that it was unclear whether the puja chant could hold religious meaning to the participants as they did not understand Sanskrit, the chanting had not been performed on government property, participation in the SCI/TM course was truly voluntary because students did not risk punishment nor undesired notoriety for participating in it, and the students had submitted affidavits indicating they did not consider the chant to have religious meaning. Based on this the judge concluded that the precedent concerning school prayers was not sufficient to determine whether SCI/TM should be considered religious for first amendment purposes.

Judge Adams reviewed cases concerning conscientious objectors which dealt with the meaning of “religion” in the context of section 6(i) of the Universal Military Service and Training Act. He referenced United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163, 85 S.Ct. 850, 13 L.Ed.2d 733 (1965) where the Supreme Court had interpreted religion to include non-theistic belief systems and Welsh v. United States, 398 U.S. 333, 90 204*204 S.Ct. 1792, 26 L.Ed.2d 308 (1970) where the Supreme Court granted conscientious objector status to a plaintiff whose opposition to service was based only on a “moral” opposition to war. He considered these cases relevant because “if the Court is willing to read ‘religious belief’ so as to comprehend beliefs based upon pantheistic and ethical views, it might be presumed to favor a similar inclusive definition of ‘religion’ as that term appears in the first amendment”. After reviewing these cases the Judge concluded that the Supreme Court had replaced its original conception of religion with a broader one. [p. 2o4]

Next, Judge Adams examined cases in which a broader definition of religion had been applied outside the context of conscientious objection. Among these, he highlighted Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488, 81 S.Ct. 1680, 6 L.Ed.2d 982 (1961) where the Supreme Court had applied a broad interpretation of “religion” in the context of a first amendment case and had stated “Among religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God are Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism and others”. He also made reference to Founding Church of Scientology v. United States, 133 U.S.App.D.C. 229, 409 F.2d 1146, where Judge Wright had been “willing to accept, as religious, ideas that are sufficiently comprehensive to be comparable to traditional religions in terms of content and subject matter”. After examining these cases he concluded that they also reflected a broader interpretation of religion. [p. 206]

Based on this comprehensive review, the Judge concluded that, while the classic definition of religion had been repudiated by the newer cases, a new definition had not yet been fully formed. He observed that the case law indicated an analogy-based approach to identifying what classifies as religious, noting that “presumably beliefs holding the same important position for members of one of the new religions as the traditional faith holds for more orthodox believers are entitled to the same treatment as the traditional beliefs”. He also identified three indicia useful for determining whether something is religious in nature. [p. 207]

Firstly, the nature of the ideas in question, religious ideas being those that deal with “ultimate questions” such as“ the meaning of life and death, man’s role in the Universe, the proper moral code of right and wrong”. Secondly, the  “comprehensiveness” of the taught theories: according to the judge, “A religion is not generally confined to one question or one moral teaching; it has a broader scope. It lays claim to an ultimate and comprehensive “truth”. Thus isolated ideas that deal with “ultimate questions” but do not  form a comprehensive belief system may not classify as religious. [p. 209] The third indicia consisted of external signs such as “formal services, ceremonial functions, the existence of clergy, structure and organization, efforts at propagation, observation of holidays and other similar manifestations”. The presence or absence of these signs would be indicative of whether something is a religion. [p. 209]

Despite identifying these three indicia the judge warned that they should not be considered a rigid final test of what constitutes a religion.

The Judge then addressed the question of whether a single definition of religion should be applied to the whole of the first amendment or whether separate definitions should be applied for the free exercise and the establishment clauses. He rejected the dual definition for the two religion clauses, considering that “although the Constitution has often been subject to a broad construction, it remains a written document. It is difficult to justify a reading of the first amendment so as to support a dual definition of religion, nor has our attention been drawn to any support for such a view in the conventional sources that have been thought to reveal the intention of the framers”. He also noted that adopting a dual definition would privilege new religion movements over traditional religions as they would be protected by the free exercise clause without being limited by the establishment clause. This was unacceptable. [p. 212]

Finally, the judge concluded that SCI/TM was a religion and that the SCI/TM course as it was taught in New Jersey public schools did not pursue an objective secular purpose. For these reasons, he agreed with the rest of the Court that the teaching of the course in public high schools was forbidden by the first amendment.


Decision Direction

Quick Info

Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Mixed Outcome

While the decision protects students’ freedoms of thought, conscience and religion and safeguards the religious neutrality of the government, it is arguable that in expanding the scope of the first amendment’s non establishment clause it prevents students from exercising their freedom of expression in choosing a particular academic course.

Global Perspective

Quick Info

Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

National standards, law or jurisprudence

Case Significance

Quick Info

Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

The decision establishes a binding or persuasive precedent within its jurisdiction.

Judge Adam’s concurring opinion has influenced how “religion” is interpreted in the context of the first amendment.

Official Case Documents

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