CAB class may violate SA constitution

By Kevin Lyons

Where is the fine line between religion and mysticism? How fine is the line and should government allocate funds to either group?

A course in Vendantic Mysticism or Vendantic Yoga has been offered at NIU for about 15 years on and off, according to Yoga instructor Arthur Shimkus. The course is a non-credit course allocated by Student Association funds through the Campus Activities Board.

According to the SA constitution, no student funds can be allocated to religious groups. For example, when members of the Wesley Foundation asked for funding for a student flood relief effort in Iowa, they were denied because they were a religious organization.

The course is not entirely CAB funded. A $5 per semester fee is charged for students taking the class.

A recent CAB flier promoting the course to be offered every Thursday evening beginning this Thursday reads, “This is a course in spiritual instruction. No physical exercises or postures will be taught.”

Shimkus, 43, has been studying under Eastern Gurus since he was in high school. In his opinion, the Yoga course is not religion per se, but he conceded that it is a debatable point.

Shimkus defined mysticism as experiential. Students are encouraged to experience what other mystics have experienced. He made distinctions between what he conceives to be religion and mysticism.

“Mysticism includes Jesus, Muhammad and Buddhism, but it’s very different from what the churches say,” Shimkus said. His major point was that religion presents a point of view that must be believed while mysticism asks the student to experience what Muhammad, for example, experienced.

When asked if he considered Yoga more of a philosophy than religion, Shimkus said, “It’s a philosophy, but it’s much more than a philosophy.”

Amy Kozlowski, CAB special events coordinator, said she wasn’t sure whether Shimkus’ class was “religious” in nature. She also refused to give any further input, including Shimkus’ phone number.

SA treasurer Virginia Welch said the class did not qualify as religion in her opinion. She said she was not able to find out the dollar amount of CAB funding used for the class at this time.

One former student of the class felt the class instruction was “definitely religious.”

According to Legal Counsel George Shur, the SA’s sponsoring of the class falls into “gray area,” and he plans to further look into the issue. If the class is determined to be a religion, he said the SA could be required to pull its funds.

Shur went on to say the law which prohibits the state funding of religion is “prudent.”

“We can make facilities available to religious organizations, we can recognize religious organizations, but when it comes to direct funding of a religion, that gets into an area that shows you’re giving a stamp of approval to the religion,” he said.

“I’m not sure how you describe Yoga, whether it’s a religion or not or whether it qualifies as a philosophy or way of life,” he said. “To me, its not a religion. It’s a style of life and a philosophy.”

Representatives from various campus religious organizations had varying opinions on the subject, but curiosity was peaked since each group is denied any SA funding.

Jordan Kagan, co-advisor for Hillel, said the Yoga class could qualify as a gray area.

“I don’t know if it deals with religion or not. The question becomes ‘What are we funding exactly?'”

John Peterson, pastor of the Judson Baptist Fellowship, was surprised by the nature of the class, particularly that it’s SA allocated.

“It’s par for the course,” Peterson said. He noted that any recognized religious group is denied funding while any mind expanding or alternative spiritual group is allowed to receive student funds.

He said he supposed the SA had the right to allocate its funding but added the Yoga class seemed to be a violation of its own policy.

Brad Wathen, campus minister for Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, also said it seemed like the SA was in violation of its own policy.

“I don’t know how they say it isn’t religious,” Wathen said. “It’s clearly Eastern Mysticism.”

Shimkus was very willing to engage in a debate over whether the class should be funded with student funds. He said the line between religion and mysticism is very questionable and a continuing debate in U.S. and state courts.

“Society has to start sharpening its definition of religion,” Shimkus said.