May 7 (UPI) -- A national trend to introduce "mindfulness" into school curriculum is being challenged by a conservative legal group that contends the practice is based on Buddhism and forces children to participate in meditation.
"We have launched a very significant effort with respect to opposition to the mindfulness programs, which apparently are spreading like wildfire throughout the United States," said Harry Hutchison, senior counsel and director of policy for the Washington-based American Center for Law and Justice.
The group's petition, arguing that mindfulness in schools is unconstitutional, has more than 82,000 signatures.
Hutchinson said the issue is a priority for the group in an appearance April 30 on the Jay Sekulow Live radio program, hosted by ACLJ's chief counsel, who also is a personal attorney for President Donald Trump.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction was developed at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in the 1970s. The program includes yoga and training in mindfulness meditation to help people respond more effectively to stress, pain and illness, according to the university's Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society.
Jai Luster, founder and executive director of the Chicago-based Luster Learning Institute, said his company's Calm Classroom programming has served about 1 million students in the United States since 2007 and helped reduce behavior problems and bullying in schools. The program -- which includes 3-minute breathing, stretching, focusing and relaxation techniques -- does not advocate any religion.
"It's not a Buddhist program," Luster said. "We're not talking about religion at all. There's nothing in our materials that talks about religion or God."
In addition, he said, no student is forced to participate.
"They have the option of sitting there quietly or putting their heads down and taking a nap," Luster said.
Laura Bakosh, co-founder of Inner Explorer, says meditation is a broad term, while mindfulness "is a very specific practice of being aware of what's happening in your mind and body moment to moment."
The Franklin, Mass., organization's program has daily 5- to 10-minutes audio-guided mindfulness practices designed to help children develop the capacity to sustain focus and to do better in school.
Corporations, including Aetna and Ford Motor Co., and sports teams also are using mindfulness in their training because it reduces stress and improves focus, Bakosh said. The U.S. military trains both frontline soldiers and returning soldiers in the techniques.
"If the goal of public education is to teach children to be ready for college and career, doesn't it make sense to teach kids young versus waiting until they're on the battlefield or on the court or in the boardroom?" Bakosh asked.
Inner Explorer has been adapting the program in response to feedback, Bakosh added, citing the removal of a part about children connecting with the universe as a way to feel love and peace within themselves. The company got complaints alleging the idea centered around a Buddhist principle.
ACLJ has been contacted by parents across the nation who object to mindfulness programs and are seeking help to resolve their complaints, said Abigail Southerland, ACLJ's senior litigation counsel. In some cases, the organization sends letters to educate school personnel about the religious nature of mindfulness and demand they cease implementing compulsory programs.
The responses have been mixed, she said. One school agreed not to implement the program in its everyday curriculum and another said it would review the curriculum, while some mantras and statements were removed in another case.
"On the other end, we've received responses from schools indicating they don't see anything wrong with the programs and intend to keep them," she said.