Lenoir City High School won't publish atheist student's editorial on religion in schools

By Hugh G. Willett knoxnews.com

Krystal Myers, editor of the school paper at Lenoir City High School, has run afoul of school administrators because of her editorial entitled "No Rights: The Life of an Atheist." Schools Director Wayne Miller said it was the decision of the school authorities not to allow publication of Myers' editorial because of the potential for disruption in the school. (ADAM BRIMER/NEWS SENTINEL)

Krystal Myers, editor of the school paper at Lenoir City High School, has run afoul of school administrators because of her editorial entitled "No Rights: The Life of an Atheist." Schools Director Wayne Miller said it was the decision of the school authorities not to allow publication of Myers' editorial because of the potential for disruption in the school. (ADAM BRIMER/NEWS SENTINEL)

LENOIR CITY — Krystal Myers is an honors student, captain of the swim team and editor of her high school newspaper.

She's also an atheist in a predominantly Christian student body.

In a recent editorial that Myers, 18, intended for the Lenoir City High School newspaper entitled "No Rights: The Life of an Atheist," she questioned her treatment by the majority.

"Why does atheism have such a bad reputation? Why do we not have the same rights as Christians?" she wrote.

Myers' editorial also accused school administrators, teachers and coaches of violating the constitution by promoting "pro-Christian" beliefs during school-sponsored events.

Lenoir City school authorities have denied Myers permission to publish her editorial in the Panther Press, the staff supervised student newspaper.

They also say their policies do not violate the constitutional rights of any students.

Schools Director Wayne Miller said it was the decision of the school authorities not to allow publication of Myers' editorial because of the potential for disruption in the school.

"We do have the right to control the content of the school paper if we feel it is in the best interest of the students," he said.

School administrators do have the right to control information distributed to students if publication would cause a disruption in the school, confirmed Dr. Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center in Washington D.C.

Legal limits

Information that might not be appropriate for general distribution to students, including that of a religious or sexual nature, can still be discussed in Lenoir City High School under the proper circumstances, Miller said.

The high school offers a program called P3 or "positive, peer pressure" where students are able to voice opinions on a wide range of subjects including religion, he said. There are also "hot-lines" that students can use to reach out during any type of personal crisis, including bullying, he said.

Even more important, Miller said, is an attitude of tolerance to all religions and other minorities within the school system.

"I have addressed the teachers about this subject. We try to be really tolerant," he said.

As to the constitutional violations alleged by Myers, Miller said he is comfortable the school system is on the right side of the law. Prayers at athletic events are student-led. School board meetings do begin with a prayer, but there are usually no students present, he said.

According to a 1999 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruling, Cleveland School Board vs. Coles, school boards are not allowed to conduct prayer services during board meetings, Haynes said.

Myers gives other examples in Lenoir City of what she believes are constitutional violations, including T-shirts worn by a teacher that depict the crucifix and a "Quote of the day" that teachers write on the boards in the classroom.

The quotes often include Bible verses, she said.

She said she wasn't worried about the reaction of other students to her editorial. "I think the teachers would be more upset," she said.

Myers also cited Lee vs. Wiseman, a U.S. Supreme Court decision based on a case where a parent tried to stop a rabbi from speaking at a middle school graduation. The court ruled in a 5-4 decision that the inclusion of clergy who offer prayers at official public school ceremonies violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

"The school's rule creates subtle and indirect coercion (students must stand respectfully and silently), forcing students to act in ways which establish a state religion," the ruling said.

Prayers that are not listed on the event agenda but which are part of the spontaneous expression of a speaker are allowed.

Prayers at graduations that are listed on the program are not spontaneous events protected by free speech, Myers argues. Prayer before athletic events is also unconstitutional because it is encouraged by teachers and coaches, she said.

"As the captain of the swim team, I feel I have to be a part of it," she said.

Minority vs. majority

The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee addressed the issue of religion in schools with the release in September 2011 of a publication entitled "Know Your Rights: Religion in Public Schools – A Guide for Administrators and Teachers" to public school superintendents across the state.

The brochure outlines which religious activities in public schools are and are not permissible based on federal court decisions and the guarantees of the Establishment, Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment.

Educators often struggle to understand how these requirements interrelate and how they apply to specific circumstances, said Hedy Weinberg, ACLU-TN executive director in Nashville.

"This is especially true when the majority of students and community members belong to the same faith tradition," she said.

According to the guidelines, school administrators cannot make decisions regarding free speech based on the best interests of the majority.

"While school systems often conclude that the school's treatment of religion should favor the majority's interest, the Bill of Rights protects minority rights as they relate to religious activities in public schools," Weinberg said.

Recently, a Rhode Island high school student successfully sued her school district over a religious mural that had been displayed for almost 50 years. The matter went before U.S. District Judge Ronald Lagueux, who ruled Jan. 12 that "no amount of debate can make the school prayer anything other than a prayer."

Myers said she plans to study journalism in college next year. She is the daughter of Marty and Jennifer Myers of Lenoir City. Her parents did not want to be quoted in this story.

No Rights: The Life of an Atheist

By Krystal Myers

The point of view expressed in this article does not necessarily reflect the point of view of the Panther Press, its staff, adviser, or school.

As a current student in Government, I have realized that I feel that my rights as an Atheist are severely limited and unjust when compared to other students who are Christians. Not only are there multiple clubs featuring the Christian faith, but youth ministers are also allowed to come onto school campus and hand candy and other food out to Christians and their friends. However, I feel like if an Atheist did that, people would not be happy about it. This may not be true, but due to pervasive negative feelings towards Atheists in the school, I feel that it would be the case. My question is, “Why? Why does

Atheism have such a bad reputation?” And an even better question, “Why do Christians have special rights not allowed to non-believers?”

Before I even begin, I just want to clear up some misconceptions about Atheism. No, we do not worship the “devil.” We do not believe in God, so we also do not believe in Satan. And we may be “godless” but that does not mean that we are without morals. I know, personally, I strive to be the best person I can be, even without religion. In fact, I have been a better person since I have rejected religion. And perhaps the most important misconception is that we want to convert everyone into Atheists and that we hate Christians. For the most part, we just want to be respected for who we are and not be judged.

Now you should know exactly what an Atheist is. Dictionary.com says that an Atheist is, “a person who denies or disbelieves the existence of a supreme being or beings.” However, this does not mean that Atheists do not believe in higher causes; we just do not believe in a higher being.

With that being said, I can move on to the real issue. Before I begin, I want you to think about your rights and how your perceived “rights” might be affecting the rights of others.

There are several instances where my rights as a non-believer, and the rights of anyone other than a Christian, have been violated. These instances inspired me to investigate the laws concerning the separation of church and state, and I learned some interesting things. However, first, I would like you to know specifically what my grievances are against the school. First and foremost is the sectarian prayer that occurs at graduation every year. Fortunately, I am not the first one to have thought that this was a problem. In the Supreme Court case, Lee v. Weisman, it was decided that allowing prayer at graduation is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment that says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Special speakers can pray, but the school cannot endorse the prayer or plan for it to happen.

Public prayer also occurs at all of the home football games using the public address system. This has, again, been covered by the Supreme Court case Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe. The Court ruled that school-sponsored prayer is an unconstitutional violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. If a speaker prays, it is fine. However, as soon as the school provides sponsorship, it becomes illegal. Sponsorship can be almost anything, even something as simple as saying that the speaker can pray or choosing a speaker with a known propensity to pray or share his or her religious views.

However, it is not just the speakers who we have to fear at Lenoir City High School. We also have to fear some of the teachers and what they might say about their own religious beliefs. On at least two separate occasions, teachers have made their religious preferences known to basically the whole school.

One teacher has made her religious preferences known by wearing t-shirt depicting the crucifix while performing her duties as a public employee. Also, Kristi Brackett, a senior at Lenoir City High School, has said that the teacher, “strongly encouraged us to join [a religious club] and be on the group’s leadership team.” Yet again, this violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. When asked if this was true, the teacher replied, “As a teacher I would never use my power of influence to force my beliefs or the beliefs of [a religious club] on any student in the school.” Regardless, the religious t-shirts are still inappropriate in the school setting. Teachers are prohibited from making their religious preferences known; the Constitution requires them to be neutral when acting in their capacity as a public school teacher.

Not only are religious preferences shown through shirts, but also through a “Quote of the Day” that some teachers write on the boards in their classrooms. One teacher has Bible verses occasionally as the teacher’s “Quote of the Day” for students. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment has been violated, yet again with no regard for non-believers.

But perhaps I would have more hope in our school and the possibility of change on the horizon if our own school board did not open their meetings with prayer. A person who wished to remain anonymous that has been present at school board meetings says, “They do have prayers. They pray to ‘Our Heavenly Father’ and end with ‘In Jesus’ Name We Pray.’” Not only is this a violation of Supreme Court law, but also a violation of the board’s own policy that prohibits prayer at school-sponsored events.

The whole foundation of how our school is conducted is established by obvious Christians. Somehow, this is unsurprising. If our School Board chooses to ignore the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and the Supreme Court, then it is no surprise that teachers choose to do the same.

I know that I will keep trying to gain my rights as an Atheist and as an American citizen, but I also need your help in educating other people to realize the injustice done to all minority groups. The Christian faith cannot rule the United States. It is unconstitutional. Religion and government are supposed to be separate. If we let this slide, what other amendments to the Constitution will be ignored? I leave you to decide what you will or will not do, but just remember that non-believers are not what you originally thought we were; we are human beings just like you.