Tennessee Teacher Pushed Out For Supporting Free Speech Of Gay And Atheist Students

In May, the Lenoir City High School faculty was threatened with a criminal investigation for publishing a yearbook story titled, “It’s OK To Be Gay.” The student newspaper at the same Knoxville, Tennessee school was barred from publishing a piece by an atheist student explaining her lack of beliefs, which was later released in a local paper. What these two pieces have in common are teacher James Yoakley, who supported the publication of both articles as an English teacher and yearbook adviser.

This year, he was mysteriously transferred to a new job. He explained to Metro Pulse the fallout from the Yearbook incident and why he thinks he’s no longer in his previous position:

YOAKLEY: When the principal suggested I resign, I was fairly sure it wasn’t his idea. I refused but certainly thought about leaving. I spent the summer exploring other opportunities but decided to stay because I knew they wanted me to leave. The transfer to the middle school was, in my opinion, a punishment designed to make me want to leave. It’s funny how much I love teaching there.

Yoakley’s principal told him he was “improperly influencing” students, and the transfer happened just three weeks after he refused to resign. As part of the change, he was removed from his yearbook adviser post, which was worth $5,000. To put that loss in perspective, the median salary for a Knoxville public school teacher is around $45,000, meaning Yoakley was docked around 11 percent of a typical salary for supporting a student’s right to speak freely about his sexual orientation or religious views.


While this sort of abuse is sadly familiar to LGBT Americans, discrimination against atheists is less well known. However, it’s also shockingly widespread. Polling data consistently shows that atheists face enormous hurdles to get access to public office and, recently, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) blamed the horrific shooting in Aurora, Colorado on non-theistic Americans.