Published Online:

Oregon Chief Withholds Funding From Rajneeshee Schools

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Oregon's superintendent of public instruction has decided to withhold state funds from a school district dominated by members of an Eastern-style religious sect.

State Superintendent Verne A. Duncan said he concluded after making a visit to the district's high school this month that it "is permeated with religious symbolism" and "did not look, sound, or feel like a public school."

Officials of the Rajneeshpuram Wasco County District 50J, in turn, have sought a court order to overturn the superintendent's action and are demanding his resignation.

A Rare Move

On March 15, Mr. Duncan ordered $1,100 in monthly state funds withheld from the 120-student district and placed in escrow for an indefinite period, according to Larry Austin, a spokesman for the superintendent. The state chief made the decision, believed to be unprecedented in Oregon, after the state attorney general advised him that it was within his power to do so, Mr. Austin said.

State superintendents almost never act to withhold funds from public-school districts, according to William Pierce, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

"It's very rare," Mr. Pierce said. "Occasionally, a district will somehow violate a state law or policy and the state withholds funds, but that's very, very unusual." In most cases, he added, the state superintendent restores the funds once the district has corrected the situation that prompted the action.

Community Takeover

The activities of the Rajneeshee cult have been the subject of considerable controversy since 1982, when the religious group established a commune in the town of Antelope, Ore. There are several lawsuits against the community challenging its le-gality, and a number of media investigations--including one by the television program "60 Minutes"--have delved into the workings of the commune and its leader. He is the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a self-proclaimed Indian religious leader who first came to the United States in 1981.

In 1982, members of the religious group succeeded in gaining a voting majority in Antelope by moving enough Rajneeshees to the 100-year-old town, which they renamed Rajneesh, according to Phillip Lemman, a spokesman in the Oregon Attorney General's Office.

In September of that year, the Rajneeshees incorporated a second town, called Rajneeshpuram, located next to Rajneesh. Established by 150 Rajneeshees on desolate land where sheep and cattle ranches once existed, Rajneeshpuram has grown into a self-sustaining community of between 4,000 and 5,000 citizens, one-third of whom live in a commune with the Bhagwan, according to Swami Anand Anshumali, a spokesman for the community.

The state attorney general in 1983 brought suit against the community, charging that the establishment of the city violated state and federal constitutional requirements for the separation of church and state, Mr. Lemman said. That suit is now in federal district court.

There are at least two other lawsuits pending in Oregon courts challenging the incorporation of the community and the annexation of the land by the Rajneeshees on the grounds that they violate state land-use laws, Mr. Lemman said.

Self-Sustaining 'New' Religion

The Rajneeshees have 47 businesses and a university that draws 35,000 people annually for short- and long-term courses, said Swami Anshumali. The two towns constitute the only Rajneeshee communities in the United States.

All of the community's Rajneeshee residents, many of whom were well-educated, well-to-do professionals who were dissatisfied with their lives, came to Oregon to follow the Bhagwan, explained Swami Anshumali, who said he is a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The religion, which Swami Anshumali terms "new," involves spiritual therapy in an environment of "celebration and acceptance." All Rajneeshees wear necklaces called malas that have 108 beads and a picture of the Bhagwan. The followers are, according to Swami Anshumali, "the 20th century's monks and nuns."

Schooling at Issue

Before Antelope became Rajneesh, the town educated its children at the Lincoln School. The Rajneeshees sent their children to that school, and subsequently built an "annex" to Lincoln School in Rajneeshpuram. Today, Rajneeshee children attend one of the two schools, which together comprise 120 students and seven teachers. Not all of the teachers or the students are Rajneeshees, but all five members of the school board are Rajneeshees, according to Swami Anshumali. There is no district superintendent.

In 1982, the state education department's Standardized Evaluation Team visited the district and found it to be a "legally constituted school district meeting all requirements to receive state funds regardless of the affiliation of the majority of its residents," according to a statement issued by Mr. Duncan on March 12.

But according to the superintendent's statement, "there have been significant changes in the program for 4th- through 12th-grade level students" in the district.

In February, two members of Mr. Duncan's staff paid an unannounced visit to the school. Based on their re-port, he visited the school himself, accompanied by a lawyer from the attorney general's office.

'Disturbed' by Observations

Mr. Duncan wrote in his March 12 statement that he was "disturbed by a number of issues" that came to his attention through the investigators and during his own visit.

Rajneeshpuram's high-school students have "minimal" school-library facilities with no general-circulation magazines or newspapers, he said. There are no state-adopted textbooks at the high-school level, he noted. And all classes cease operation daily to allow students and staff members to "participate in a religious celebration," he wrote.

Finally, he noted, "I saw nothing to indicate high-school students have the opportunity to study a broad spectrum of literature, philosophy, history and political systems which are not endorsed by the religious community."

Program Said Unconstitutional

But perhaps the most damaging of Mr. Duncan's findings, Mr. Austin noted, was that the district's 4th- through 12th-grade program has been moved from the original Antelope school to the ranch where most of the commune's members reside. The program, called "School Without Walls," is "so tied to the commune, it violates the state constitution," Mr. Austin said.

The "School Without Walls" program, according to Swami Anshumali, allows 15- and 16-year-old students--there are no 17- and 18-year-olds in the community--to participate for part of the school day in "learning centers" established by community businesses to teach various practical skills.

Older students who choose to participate in the program spend most of their day in the centers, learning a variety of skills from community members. For every two hours spent in the learning center, a student spends an hour in the classroom studying those subjects that are specified by the law, Swami Anshumali explained.

While in Rajneeshpuram, Mr. Duncan visited a computer learning center, where a student was seated before a computer screen. "The only two images I saw on the computer screen were the face of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and the logo of the religious organization," Mr. Duncan noted.

"At a learning center, teachings of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh were displayed on a wall plaque," he said. "Student assignments were prefaced with 'Beloved,' the common salutation of the religious community."

But Swami Anshumali objected to Mr. Duncan's characterization. "There's no education that's involved with religion," he said. The pictures of the Bhagwan that Mr. Duncan saw, he explained, belong to the people who run the businesses and are not part of the curriculum.

Further, he said, the community does not understand why Mr. Duncan chose to withhold funds from the entire district if the program he objected to is just for older students.

'We Are Entitled'

Because of Mr. Duncan's decision to withhold the funds, the Rajneesh board of education, at the request of a group of students, voted to remove the learning-center component from the district's educational program pending final litigation in the matter.

In a press conference last week, the students accused Mr. Duncan of ''trying to destroy our education for his political ambition."

"Our religion has nothing to do with our school," they said. "We are entitled to a public education just like anyone else."

Because the learning centers have caused "a lot of unnecessary trouble," the students announced that they had decided to "take all required subjects in the classroom until our constitutional rights are recognized."

Counter Claim Filed

According to Swami Anshumali, the community hoped that, once the objectionable program was removed from the curriculum, Mr. Duncan would restore the funds. But as of last week, Mr. Duncan had not restored the money.

In response, the community filed suit in Marion County Circuit Court seeking an order requiring Mr. Duncan to restore the funds or appear in court to show cause for his actions, Swami Anshumali said.

A hearing in the case is scheduled for this week.

The community, contending that the cutoff was politically motivated, has also called for Mr. Duncan's resignation.

"The school is probably one of the most scrutinized schools in the state of Oregon, simply because everything that this community has been doing has been tremendously scrutinized," Swami Anshumali said. "If politicians voice any opposition to this community, they will get elected. Now it's gotten to the point that even the children are being used for political means."

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories