IN THE NEWS
By Hugh G. Willett
Thursday, February 23, 2012
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.
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.