As is well known, parks and recreation professionals have to wear a number of hats. From sports directors to referees, from amateur chefs to on-the-spot psychologists, most individuals who select this profession relish the opportunity to participate in a wide variety of activities.
In the process, they often touch on the emotional lives of those with whom they come into contact. Part of the emotional or effective dimension of most individuals includes an element of what we generally understand to be religion. Those involved in public or government-supported activities generally stay clear of any action that might conflict with the well-known Constitutional principle of separation of church and state. And rightly so! With all of the problems facing the busy recreation professional, the last thing he or she needs is to become embroiled in the two very areas where emotions tend to run highest--religion and politics.
Nonetheless, as recent events have shown, even the simplest, or seemingly simplest decision can arouse all sorts of reactions, bringing in religion and threatening the very fabric of otherwise close-knit communities. The case which we highlight below is becoming typical of what is occurring with increasing frequency throughout the country, not just in the South and not just in smaller towns and cities. We raise many questions, but offer relatively few solutions. Since legal and cultural norms differ from state to state, those are both worked out on the local level. Like it or not, recreation professionals may well be called upon to make judgments on what is or is not a religious group or a religious practice, or (even more controversial) whether seemingly innocuous activities are somehow related to satanism.
On August 16, 1990, the following notice appeared in the Toccoa (GA) Record
The recreation department will sponsor a Yoga class that
will meet on Monday nights for six weeks from 6-7:30
p.m. Cost will be $40 and the instructor will be Carolyn
Davis, author of two books on Yoga. The class will teach
participants how to relax, control stress, breathing awareness,
stretching, facial exercise and diet tips. Pre-registration
Sandwiched between announcements of a cat show and a karate tournament, and registration deadlines for sports and cheerleading, this notice appears to be as straightforward and non-controversial as the rest of the news included under the headline "Recreation Department Update." it would be difficult, if not impossible, to count the number of similar courses in Yoga offered by recreation departments elsewhere in the United States or the number of notices like this one that appear almost daily in newspapers, community newsletters and other publications. Yet, this particular notice set off a string of actions and reactions that brought Toccoa to national prominence and at the same time focused attention on the role of recreation professionals.
Toccoa, a small city with a population of about 9,000, is situated at the northeast comer of the mountain region of Georgia. It is a tranquil area, embraced by forests and mountains and enjoying a peaceful and beautifully preserved natural environment. Toccoans are relatively less affected by trends of new thought than are their more urbanized neighbors. Christian fundamentalists have a strong influence. Traditional patterns of thought and action continue to dominate the community.
Soon after the announcement of the Yoga classes appeared, a local chiropractor made the circuit of several churches in the city asserting that Yoga is a branch of the occult and that its reputed benefits are demon-inspired. He held out little hope for those who participated in this course, people whom he likened to cattle on their way to a slaughter. Incited by this individual, more and more people in and around Toccoa came to believe that instruction in Yoga is a form of devil worship and that Yoga classes represented a serious threat to their homes and families. …