The Education Of Mr. Yoakley: Brave Bible-Belt Teacher Sanctioned For Standing Up For Students

A Tennessee high school teacher who supported an atheist student has been transferred to another school.

Earlier this year, Americans United came to the assistance of a high school senior in Tennessee named Krystal Myers. Krystal, a resident of Lenoir City, is an atheist who decided to write a column for the school newspaper about her experiences attending public schools in the Bible Belt town.

Myers outlined a series of “special rights” that she said the religious majority at the school enjoyed. These included sectarian prayers at graduation ceremonies, prayer at football games, teachers wearing clothing with religious imagery and prayers to open school board meetings.

The column turned out to be too hot to handle. When school administrators got wind of it, they yanked the piece from the school newspaper, The Panther Press. It later appeared in the Knoxville News Sentinel, where it reached a bigger audience, but, unfortunately, sparked a round of attacks on Krystal. Some commentators even proposed that she be run out of town.

By this time, Americans United was on the case. AU attorneys sent a letter to Lenoir City school officials, telling them that they must stop promoting religion in school. They advised school officials to “suspend delivery of prayers at board meetings; prohibit distribution of religious literature and messages during the school day, including by outside ministries; prohibit teachers from promoting religion during their classes; and eliminate prayers from graduation ceremonies and other school events.”

Krystal graduated in June, but fallout from the incident is still being felt. As a result of the letter, school officials said they would make a number of changes to school policies. That’s good. But a more recent development is not so good: A teacher who supported Krystal has been removed from Lenoir City High School.

Richard Yoakley, the adviser to the school newspaper, supported Krystal’s right to run the article about church-state problems at the high school. That got him summoned to the principal’s office for a talking to. A few months later, Yoakley ran into more problems after the school yearbook, of which he also served as adviser, contained an article about a gay student at the school.

“The administration didn't talk to me for two weeks,” Yoakley said recently at a forum sponsored by the Knoxville Writers’ Guild.  He said not long after that, the principal asked him to resign, accusing him of “improperly influencing” students.

Yoakley refused to resign, and three weeks later was transferred to Lenoir City Middle School. The News Sentinel reported that a subsequent Freedom of Information request filed by the Student Press Law Center “revealed the pressure that the school administrators were subjected to by members of the community. A number of emails that were described as ‘vicious and vitriolic’….”

In fact, Yoakley said that he was wary of even being seen in Lenoir City for a while and that school officials considered hiring a security detail for him during the graduation ceremonies. Instead, Yoakley chose not to attend.

Yoakley says he loves his new job at the middle school, and I have no reason to doubt that. Still, I can’t help but feel sad over this incident. Here’s a man who by all accounts was dedicated to his job and cared about his students. And this is the reward he got?

Americans United has always had strong ties to the public education community. We know that most public school educators understand that their job is to stay focused on teaching, not preaching.

In many parts of the country, where religious diversity is the rule, a balance of interests keeps any one group from using the schools to promote its views. But as Yoakley’s story indicates, this is far from the case in some areas where religious majoritarianism continues to carry the day. We still have a lot of work to do in the Bible Belt.