No Free Lunch

UCSB Lunch Group Claims Religious Discrimination

by Ethan Stewart

In a sea of fast food and meals made for students on the go, the
UCSB Bhakti Yoga Club (BYC) has been providing faculty, students,
and staff with a spiritually centered, delicious, and healthy
twice-weekly lunch alternative since the mid 1990s. However, the
Wednesday and Thursday afternoon campus gatherings — which often
drew in excess of 100 hungry people — were ordered to cease earlier
this year by college administrators claiming that the group was in
violation of campus and county regulations governing clubs and how
they may serve or sell food. “What we had was a wonderful and open
gathering of people with vegetarian food, music, and people from
all walks of life talking with one another. … We are being
discriminated against, and now it rests on some lawyer’s desk,”
said the club’s founder, Sarvatma Das, earlier this week. But to
hear UCSB dean of student life associate Carolyn Buford tell it,
the current situation is simply a matter of adhering to the law.
“It is a food safety issue. We had an understanding with Bhakti
Yoga, and essentially that agreement was being violated. … I’m just
trying to make sure that we follow the law.”

The controversy in question stems from the Indian stew, organic
salad, vegan almond dressing, whole wheat German bread, and
assorted teas and organic juices that Das and his wife prepared
themselves and served to club members at the lunch meetings as a
form of prasadam, a Hindu practice of sharing sanctified food with
others as a kind of prayer offering. According to the university,
the BYC — which also offers off-campus Sunday night meetings
complete with meditation, readings from the Upanishads (part of the
Hindu holy scripture), philosophical debate, and more
health-conscious vegetarian food — is not permitted to serve food
as often as it did or in the manner it did.

This isn’t the first time the club has clashed with
administrators over its lunch-hour gatherings. In 1999, a similar
shutdown lasted for nine months while the BYC hammered out a
compromise with the Office of Student Life. Under that agreement,
the BYC was able to resume its prasadam practice as long as members
prepared the food in a county-certified kitchen and collected a $5
“membership” fee from attendees. But after county officials tipped
off the school in late May that Das was doing the cooking at home,
university officials ordered the lunchtime meetings to shut down.
Also around this time, UCLA put the squeeze on a similar Bhakti
lunch group on the Westwood campus. But Das and many of the BYC’s
members past and present say the shutdown is just about money and
violates their First Amendment rights. To them, the practice of
prasadam is a religious — albeit delicious — endeavor that was
upsetting some of the food vendors on campus because it offered
such a cheap and healthy alternative. Defending his cooking and his
club, Das objected that calling “it a health issue is wrong. Never
in all our years has anyone complained or gotten sick.” He went on
to say, “Literally, it’s like preventing the Catholics from giving
the wafer because it’s not state-approved.”

As it stands now, the BYC and the University are at an impasse,
with lawyers on both sides trying to reach a compromise. The school
wants the club either to become an official retail
vendor — entailing a lengthy and expensive permitting process — or
to reshape its meeting to a “potluck” format in which 80 percent of
all attendees bring a dish. To Das and company, this is
unacceptable, as they consider it their First Amendment right to
continue the religious lunches as they did previously. A potluck,
they point out, would not be prasadam. In the meantime, the BYC has
not met on campus since June and — while its off-campus meetings
continue — its official UCSB club status has recently lapsed,
making the return of Bhakti lunches to the UCSB campus unlikely for
the foreseeable future.

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