Ninth Circuit Affirms Trial Court Decision In Waldorf Methods Case

June 7, 2012 | Bulletin No. 1001705.1

In a case litigated by KMTG attorneys, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals today issued an unpublished decision which upheld a judgment of the Eastern District Court in favor of Sacramento City Unified School District in the longstanding litigation over the use of Waldorf methods in public schools and publicly funded charter schools.  This case began in 1998 when a taxpayer group named PLANS (People for Legal Non Sectarian Schools) filed a federal lawsuit seeking declaratory and injunctive relief claiming that the use of Waldorf methods in public schools violated the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.  Their claim is based upon their allegation that Waldorf methods are related to "anthroposophy" which they claim to be a new age religion.

Both anthroposophy (literally translated from Latin to mean “the wisdom of man”) and Waldorf education were founded by Rudolf Steiner, a prolific Austrian philosopher, scientist, teacher, and thinker.  PLANS claimed that anthroposophy is a religion and that it is the foundation for Waldorf education such that using Waldorf methods in public schools violates the First Amendment’s prohibition against the establishment of religion by government.  Waldorf education and Waldorf methods focus on educating the “whole child” and integrate the arts into all subjects, including science, math, and language arts.  The methods also include cooking and gardening at all grade levels, an emphasis on oral story telling at the lower grade levels, and aesthetically pleasing classrooms.

As the litigation progressed the parties and the trial judge agreed that the court should first determine the preliminary issue of whether anthroposophy is a religion for Establishment Clause purposes.  On August 31, 2010, there was a one day bench trial before United States District Court Judge Frank Damrell on the preliminary issue of whether anthroposophy is a religion.  At the close of PLANS’ case, the school district moved for judgment on partial findings based on PLANS' complete failure to meet its burden of proving anthroposophy was a religion.  Judge Damrell entered judgment in favor of the school district and PLANS appealed to the Ninth Circuit. 

The Ninth Circuit ruled that the trial court’s evidentiary rulings in the case were appropriate.  The Ninth Circuit also agreed that PLANS failed to meet its burden of proving that anthroposophy is a religion for purposes of the Establishment Clause.  However, the Ninth Circuit did point out that it was expressing no view as to whether anthroposophy could be considered a religion on the basis of a fuller or more complete record.  Further, the Ninth Circuit held that PLANS waived its right to claim on appeal that a determination that anthroposophy is a religion is not necessary to prevail on the Establishment Clause claim since they failed to raise that issue below.

What This Means To You

The conclusion of this lengthy litigation means the use of Waldorf methods instruction in public schools or publicly funded charter schools has successfully survived it’s first major legal challenge.  However, because the Ninth Circuit and district court did not fully review the programs at issue, other litigants may arise in the future to challenge these types of innovative educational programs.


If you have any questions concerning the content of this Legal Alert, please contact the following from our office, or the attorney with whom you normally consult.

Michelle L. Cannon or Christian M. Keiner | 916.321.4500