Being different is never easy, especially for a teenager. Just ask Krystal Myers, a senior at Lenoir City High School in Lenoir City, Tenn.
Myers, who is an atheist in a community that is overwhelmingly Christian, had felt for some time that her views were not respected by her high school, which is located 30 miles southwest of Knoxville and consists of about 2,500 students. She told Church & State that she “started wanting to really pursue these issues at the beginning of my second semester [of senior year]. I just really felt that something needed to be said.”
Myers tried to publish an opinion column in her school newspaper, the Panther Press, which detailed how she felt as a nonbeliever in a predominantly Christian community. The column painted a picture of a school that openly favored Christianity, which made the honors student feel more like a second-class student.
“I have realized that I feel that my rights as an atheist are severely limited when compared to other students who are Christians,” Myers wrote. “Why do Christians have special rights not allowed to nonbelievers?”
She then went on to detail those “special rights,” which include sectarian prayers at graduation ceremonies, prayer at football games, teachers wearing clothing with religious imagery and prayers to open school board meetings.
Myers’ words never made it into the school newspaper. She wasn’t allowed to publish her work, school officials said, on the grounds that it could be disruptive. The Knoxville News Sentinel, however, had no such reservation, and her column ran in that publication Feb. 26. The newspaper reported that the column caused no disruptions at the school. (For more, see the April 2012 edition of Church & State.)
When Americans United attorneys became aware of Myers’ situation, they intervened on her behalf. AU Senior Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper and Steven Gey Fellow Natalie Shapero sent a letter March 12 to Lenoir City school officials, asking that they comply with the First Amendment of the Constitution.
The letter outlined four problem areas that must be addressed and explained how they can be resolved: “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.”
AU’s action, as well as letters from other advocacy groups including the ACLU, may have produced two results. First, the Lenoir City Board of Education claims that it will suspend prayer before meetings and will also suspend the practice of allowing public prayers before high school football games.
“This is what I wanted,” Myers said.
But School Superintendent Wayne Miller told the News Sentinel that long-term decisions will be made after the school system’s attorney advises the board. At press time, the board had not announced its decision, nor had its attorney responded to the letter from Americans United.
The second result was considerably less desirable, as some in the community expressed outrage that their perceived freedom of religious expression was under attack, and some of the complaints have been directed at Myers. In an online forum for Lenoir City residents, a comment thread titled “Krystal Myers should be Excommunicated from the City and County” has sprung up. One commenter, whose user name is “Dude,” said, “We need to rise up and Kick (sic) devil worshiping, drama loving, Krystal Myers out of town.”
Myers finds the anonymous attacks frustrating.
“They are not too happy with me, and now everyone seems to know who I am,” she said. “I’ve had several hateful statuses and tweets about me and what I am doing. I was expecting some negative feedback, but nothing to this extent. Everyone seems to know everything about me, when I don’t even know who they are.”
Lipper told Church & State that citizens who have complained about Myers’ activism are off base in their charges.
“The freedom of religion is for all students – not just those in the majority,” he said. “The Bill of Rights guarantees that parents – not the government – get to guide their children’s religious upbringing.”
All this “controversy” in Lenoir City has drawn the attention of the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a Religious Right legal outfit founded by television and radio preachers.
ADF attorney Brett Harvey told OneNewsNow that “we see this over and over again throughout the country. “[Groups like Americans United are] using fear, intimidation, and, quite frankly, disinformation to try to bully schools into taking away and cutting out any form of religious expression in the public schools, and it’s simply not necessary.”
But AU’s Lipper says Harvey is blurring the lines. When public school educators are conducting official business, they are part of the government.
“In trying to promote its own agenda of giving the government more and more control over religion, ADF has a history of giving local governments bad advice about the First Amendment’s requirements,” Lipper said. “This isn’t about students practicing their religion, it’s about the government promoting and forcing one religion on all students – whether they like it or not.”
As for the bullying charge, Lipper said the ADF has it backward.
“Writing a letter filled with legal citations is hardly the work of a bully,” he said, “and we go to court only as a last resort. Unfortunately ADF gets bent out of shape when we ask the government to follow the law.”
Despite his tough-guy talk, Harvey even admitted that Lenoir City High School could be on shaky legal ground.
“Some schools have gotten into trouble in the past, and the courts have said ‘what you’re doing is unconstitutional,’ but it certainly requires a careful analysis,” he said.
At press time, some in Lenoir City were getting vocal and organized in support of school-sanctioned prayer. According to the News Sentinel, hundreds gathered to pray on the Loudon County courthouse lawn March 29. Some supporters carried signs that read: “He stood for us. We stand for him,” and “It’s freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.”
Lipper hopes that the community will grow to be more inclusive of non-Christian viewpoints.
“It’s a long process,” he said. “But we hope the school district will understand that the ‘Three Rs’ do not include religion.”
In the meantime, Myers, who said she will study journalism at the University of Tennessee, has some advice for anyone who wants to stand up as she did when something just isn’t right.
“I would tell them to bring it to the attention of their school’s administrators and school board first,” she said. “Then, if nothing happens, try to contact someone who will help bring about the necessary changes.”
Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn offered high praise for Myers and also stressed the importance of what she is doing.
“Courage like Krystal’s is hard to find in people of any age,” he said. “It is those who stand up for their rights who protect the rights for all of us.”