It seems like it’s a great time to be a high school student. Back in the day, there weren’t any shows like “Glee” to let everyone how cool tolerance was. Yep, back then respecting teenage individuality wasn’t the big cause among celebrities. If you didn’t want to get picked on, you either had to be one of the cool kids, try to act like one of the cool kids, or keep your head down and hope no one notices you for four years. But while teenagers have gotten less mean, school administrators appear to be sticklers for the “good ol’ days.”
A Tennessee journalism teacher has resigned after intense pressure from the public and his school following his support of a student-written article about being an atheist at a Christian school. Lenoir City High School teacher Richard Yoakley supported the student, Krystal Myers, in getting her article published in the school’s paper. However, School Director Wayne Miller barred the piece from running in order to protect the school from “disruption.” It seems Miller isn’t all too keen on First Amendment rights.
The article could’ve been a good jumping off point to help bridge cultural and religious gaps at the school as it spoke openly about common misconceptions surrounding atheism. At the very least, it might’ve at least opened up a candid discussion about the topic. But such wasn’t the case. Fortunately, the honors student’s work did eventually see the light of day when the News Sentinel published the piece in its entirety.
As for Yoakley, the school transferred him because of his supportive actions. And today, he’s currently out of a job.
While the official line is that Yoakley voluntarily stepped down from his position, there’s still good cause for a potential constitutional rights violation lawsuit.
We all know that the First Amendment protects our rights to free speech, expression, and religion, among other things. What it also does is prevent public schools and the government from endorsing any religious beliefs via what’s known as the Establishment Clause. Basically the idea is that government entities cannot stifle or promote any religious beliefs over another. This ensures everyone will be free to practice whatever they believe free of any government persecution.
So what does all this have to do with Yoakley? Like Occam’s razor, the simplest answer is the right one. While atheism is by its very definition the denial of any adherence to God or religion, it by nature would be a personal belief. You see, the Establishment Clause and the many Supreme Court cases interpreting it state that while the government can question the sincerity of one’s beliefs, it’s unconstitutional for them to question the legitimacy of the belief or religion itself.
Therefore, Yoakley support for Myer’s article and implicit support for atheism cannot be grounds to punish or demote him. While it’s arguable whether transferring him elsewhere would be tantamount to a punishment for his beliefs, it’s an avenue worth exploring. And with the media coverage his story is getting, it’s also a potential lawsuit that many up-and-coming attorneys would likely be happy to try for him pro bono.
As for Myers, unfortunately for her, the Supreme Court has long established that students have limited First Amendment rights on school grounds. The justification being that public schools aren’t proper forums for such demonstrations as they are meant to be neutral learning grounds for minor students.
For now, there’s no word yet on whether Yoakley will be filing any sort of lawsuit against his former employers. But don’t be surprised if you see one from him sometime in the future.