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June 6th, 2013
10:37 AM ET

With his speech, valedictorian brings God to graduation

By Jessica Ravitz, CNN
[twitter-follow screen_name='JRavitzCNN']

(CNN) - Leading up to Saturday’s ceremony, Roy Costner IV prayed on what he was going to do. Liberty High School’s 2013 valedictorian would soon find himself in front of a microphone. He’d have a pulpit from which he could address his small community tucked away in South Carolina’s mountainous corner.

Only his father and pastor knew what was weighing on his heart and mind. Could he, should he, insert a prayer in his pre-approved graduation speech? He’d been told by the school principal that talk of religion wasn’t allowed, and so far he’d followed the rules.

But as the day approached, the 18-year-old couldn’t deny what he felt he needed to do.

“I wanted to stand up for God,” he explained Wednesday. “This is what God wanted me to do.”

So Costner, in cap and gown, stood behind the podium and ripped up his original speech. Before he gave shout-outs to coaches, cheerleaders and friends, there was something else he wanted to say.

“One thing I am certain of is we’re all a sum of our experiences, both good and bad,” he told his fellow graduates, a class of about 150. “All in all, those experiences, the people who mentored us, that we look up to, they have helped carve and mold us into the young adults that we are today. I’m so thankful that both of my parents led me to the Lord at a young age. And I think most of you will understand when I say, ‘Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name …”

The crowd before him began to cheer as he recited the Lord’s Prayer, drowning out a few verses. The school principal, sitting behind him, appeared uncomfortable and peered down at papers on her lap. The school district’s superintendent, a few seats over, couldn’t help but smile.

“I was tearing up,” Costner said, remembering the moment. “I was overwhelmed by the response. … The clapping was so loud I couldn’t hear myself talking into the microphone.”

His father told CNN's Piers Morgan on Thursday night he was overwhelmed with pride for his son. The younger Costner approached his dad a few days before the speech and showed him what he wanted to do.

"I said, 'Look, if you're doing this for political reasons, don't. But if you're doing it because you feel led to do it and you feel this is a part of your speech, then I want you to do it and I'll stand by you,' " Roy Costner III said.

Some who were there heaped on praise when talking to CNN affiliate WYFF. One called it “pretty impressive.” Another student said it “took a lot of courage” and that “people were proud that he stood up for what he believed in.”

What he believes is that Liberty, a town with three stoplights and a population of 3,000, “fully supports prayer.”

He also believes that organizations such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Madison, Wisconsin, group dedicated to maintaining separation of church and state, should stop meddling in the affairs of the Pickens County School District. The foundation, over this past school year, has leaned on the district to keep Jesus and student-led prayers out of school board meetings.

Other concerns went beyond board meetings. This spring, the foundation’s staff attorney sent a lawyer representing the district a letter about complaints of alleged discriminatory hiring and religious promotion in another county high school and praise music being played in an elementary school classroom. The foundation said it learned of such practices by way of community members who are, in fact, not fully supporting prayer.

Costner said he set out to make a statement, one he hopes will inspire others to stand up, too, for what he sees as the good of this country.

“Taking prayer out of schools is the worst thing we could do,” he said.

If Costner went to a Christian school, there would be no discussion, said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. But in public schools, even in a place where there may be a religious majority, prayers such as his are clearly unconstitutional, she said. What’s more, she added, what he did shows contempt for school district policy and a lack of sensitivity for his audience.

“It’s aggressive. It’s supremely rude,” she said. “This student is old enough to know that not everyone in the audience is Christian.”

But Costner, who was bouncing between interviews and heading to New York for TV appearances, said he counts atheists among his friends. He said that even though he doesn’t agree with their beliefs, he respects them – and that they do the same for him.

The elder Costner said his son had been inundated with messages of support, even from atheists.

He said he thinks the video of the speech resonated with people across the country because many people "really want something to hold onto for hope."

The son said he’s experienced no blowback from the district for what he did. And a district spokesman suggested Costner won’t.

“He’s a graduate now, so there’s nothing we can do about it even if we wanted to,” John Eby told WYFF. “But the bottom line is we’re not going to punish students for expressing their religious faiths.”

The district, Eby explained to CNN Friday morning, is in a “nearly impossible position.” He said federal law, under the Establishment Clause, is clear that public schools cannot “approve in advance a student’s prayer” or “carve out time specifically for religious expression.” But, under the Free Exercise Clause, he added, “we can’t punish students who do pray.”

Gaylor doesn’t expect there to be any punishment. But without issuing some sort of statement expressing disappointment and reiterating school policy, she said, the district is making a mistake.

“It’s one thing if a school doesn’t have a policy,” she said. “But when they do, they really need to enforce their policy because otherwise it’s just a wink and a nod.”

Eby has an answer to this.

“I do want to reiterate that we don’t approve rule breaking,” he said. “But we are very serious about protecting our students’ rights to express themselves religiously – or refuse to.”

- CNN Writer/Producer

Filed under: Belief • Christianity

soundoff (5,383 Responses)
  1. jimds000

    Costner is a deluded maniac, obviously just what this hillbilly town deserves. In America we separate church and state–by
    law–it is that simple.

    June 6, 2013 at 10:41 pm |
  2. Happy Atheist

    It's too bad he didn't respect his Atheist friends enough to let them have their day as well. Had it been a Muslim praising Allah or any other religion, or lack of,other than the majority it would not have been tolerated and that's not really something to be proud of. He was selfish not to adhere to rules that were meant to make everyone feel welcome but because it's the norm it is not only tolerated but cheered.

    June 6, 2013 at 10:39 pm |
  3. Diego

    “It’s aggressive. It’s supremely rude,” she said. “This student is old enough to know that not everyone in the audience is Christian.”

    I'm not a religious person by any means, but the minority (angry activist atheists) do not get to impose their will on the majority. And the majority in S.C. are Christians. So Laurie: let people be... chill and shut up.

    June 6, 2013 at 10:36 pm |
    • Laurie

      No, Diego, you chill and shut up. Go back to playing with your tiny penis, but do so quietly this time.

      June 6, 2013 at 10:39 pm |
    • OOO

      Diego,
      How stupid a statement is that. You know this kind of argument is why we have something called a bill of rights. To protect us from the likes of YOU!

      June 6, 2013 at 10:40 pm |
    • Saraswati

      I have at least two friends who are atheists and were their high school valedictorians. Neither included anything about atheism in their speeches. That would just have been obnoxious and inappropriate. Too bad some Christians can't extend the same courtesy.

      June 6, 2013 at 10:43 pm |
    • NSL

      I am not an atheist, and I'm not a Christian, and I am appalled at the actions of this Christian who has no regard for anyone else except himself and those who believe as he believes, when in a public school setting, where no religion is to be supreme. If he wanted to have religion in school he should have attended a private religious school which is he right to do, but it's not his right to subject others with his religious beliefs at public school.

      June 6, 2013 at 10:48 pm |
    • Edweird69

      @NSL – Great post! Wish I would have said that.

      June 6, 2013 at 10:57 pm |
    • Arthur Bryant

      Just like you would if the reverse were true? Cut me a break, sit down and shut up.

      June 9, 2013 at 2:20 am |
  4. Zayah V

    He is the reason war and hate will never fade from this world. When you have no problems breaking laws over your belief you not only become a criminal but an oppressor.

    June 6, 2013 at 10:35 pm |
    • Actually

      He didn't break any laws. Duh

      June 6, 2013 at 10:39 pm |
    • Stinky Pinky

      Would I be breaking any laws if I booed him and told him to shut up?

      June 6, 2013 at 10:46 pm |
    • Jason

      Does that apply to people who enter the country illegally?

      June 6, 2013 at 10:46 pm |
    • Zayah V

      I never said he broke any laws, I basically implied that because he believes his cause is just and righteous, he felt he was special and could break the no religion talk rule. He obviously has no problems letting anything get in the way of his religion, which is why its frightening. Most of you only think about the small act and think nothing more, but when its ok to break a few small rules here and there over religion it never ends at just small rules.

      June 6, 2013 at 11:09 pm |
  5. cindypress

    Would all you liberals be blasting a Muslim for saying a prayer when you are talking about the need to build mosques on college campuses so they have a place to pray.

    June 6, 2013 at 10:33 pm |
    • Observer

      cindypress,

      The most radical Muslims are practicing many of the direct commands from God when he set up the rules.

      It isn't Muslims that are denying equal rights in this country. Do some research.

      June 6, 2013 at 10:36 pm |
    • LinCA

      @cindypress

      You said, "Would all you liberals be blasting a Muslim for saying a prayer when you are talking about the need to build mosques on college campuses so they have a place to pray."
      Yes, although I doubt we'd get a word in edgewise, if it came to a "discussion". I suspect we'd be discussing the beating death at the hands of christians.

      June 6, 2013 at 10:37 pm |
    • OOO

      Atheists come in many persuations: liberal, consevative, democrat, republican, black, white, male, female.
      Why single out liberals? You got a problem with liberal thinking? Say it then.

      June 6, 2013 at 10:38 pm |
    • Saraswati

      Yes.

      June 6, 2013 at 10:43 pm |
    • NSL

      Yes, I would be blasting a Christian, Muslin, Taoist, Jew, Buddhist, a Hindu or someone of any religion, or someone who is not part of any religion from doing what he did. The practice of any religion or non-religion doesn't belong in public schools. If someone wants to practice there religion in school they only need attend a religiously based private school for the privilege.

      June 6, 2013 at 10:53 pm |
  6. Kevin

    In the words of Dr. King Shultz:

    "Or, you poor devils could make your way to a more enlightened part of your country, and in the odd chance there are any astronomy aficionados amongst you, the north star is... that one."

    June 6, 2013 at 10:32 pm |
  7. Sam Igbins

    May God Bless you young man!.. There's nothing wrong in standing up for Jesus!.. If the world hate you, happy are ye. Jesus was hated, thats why he was crucified. I Love you MAN and May God bless and keep you!

    June 6, 2013 at 10:31 pm |
    • Edweird69

      The bible belt: where being gay is a choice and being obese is genetic.

      June 6, 2013 at 10:35 pm |
    • Zayah V

      And where if a first lady is black she has no business telling your that 300 grams of sugar a day for your children is bad. I'd call it child abuse.

      June 6, 2013 at 10:37 pm |
  8. Jessica

    This isn't courage. Standing up and saying a prayer in front of a crowd that agrees with you and all of whom share your beliefs isn't being courageous. He's only demonstrating how deeply he conforms to the demands his town makes on its people. Big deal, you did exactly what everyone expected!

    If this had been an atheist, a Jew, a Muslim, or anyone else saying a prayer or a statement of their religious (or areligious) belief, now that would have been courage. Of course, I doubt it would've made the news either, because everybody knows that atheists, Jews and Muslims aren't real Americans and shouldn't be encouraged. /sarcasm

    June 6, 2013 at 10:31 pm |
    • Sammy Sosa

      Jessica, you are a hater. Shame on you. He was courageous. You are SPOILED rotten child. But you know what....Jesus loves you and wants you to know hat!

      June 6, 2013 at 10:46 pm |
  9. Jesus freaker

    I'm ok with it as the prayer is followed by a disclaimer about the dangers of religion and its negative impact on the world.

    June 6, 2013 at 10:30 pm |
    • Actually

      Luckily we don't have to have disclaimers in the U.S. We can just say what we believe

      June 6, 2013 at 10:42 pm |
    • Jesus freaker

      The rest of us will not be forced to listen. If you want to hear about the land of make believe, then go to church.

      June 6, 2013 at 10:53 pm |
  10. Saraswati

    I guess next time an atheist, Muslim, Neo Nazi, Satanist, marxist or pro-polygamist graduates they can just give the speech of their choice in South Carolina? Feel like using graduation to talk about your position on the occupied territories in Israel? Go for it. Really, what is wrong with these narrow-minded, self-centered backwoods southerners? Is it more the narrow-minded sheltered nature of their upbrining, the highly limited education, or the fact they just don't care about anyone else?

    June 6, 2013 at 10:30 pm |
    • Edweird69

      Agreed! Looks like this person was brilliant at learning everything but some respect for other people's beliefs, or lack of beliefs. Narcissistic bungho.

      June 6, 2013 at 10:32 pm |
    • Actually

      Yes hey can and they can in any of the other 49 states.

      June 6, 2013 at 10:48 pm |
    • Actually

      @Edweird69
      He wasn't insensitive to others beliefs. He was stating his beliefs. He is valedictorian and has the right to express what motivated him and give honor where he feels it is warranted

      June 6, 2013 at 10:52 pm |
    • Jason

      By these standards, we should outlaw all public speech as it is impossible not to offend at least one member of the audience. Your post offends me, so by your logic you are uneducated and most likely a racist and a biggot.

      June 6, 2013 at 10:56 pm |
    • Edweird69

      @Actually – I don't care if he's the King of England. He has no right to bring his religion to a forum where it is uncalled for, and inappropriate. A public school is no place to bring your religious ideals to an unsuspecting audience. I can't stand sneak attacks! They're cowardly.

      June 6, 2013 at 11:01 pm |
    • Saraswati

      High school valedictorian speeches are almost always approved. You can't use them to advertise your parents business, provide a list of people you think are ugly or spend an hour pumping your favorite political candidate. These speeches are part of a group ceremony, not some free-for-all prize where you get to say anything you want. Never have been and if they ever were to become that they'd be made much shorter and described differently in the program.

      June 6, 2013 at 11:01 pm |
  11. boohoo

    Oh that's awful. lol

    June 6, 2013 at 10:28 pm |
  12. Colin

    A 2010 Gallup poll indicated that 4 in 10 Americans think that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.”

    This is what happens after a few generations with an education system that hasn't got the courage to confront religious superst.itions.

    This kid gets up and says a prayer to a Greco-Roman sky-god and the whole audience cheers. I hope enjoys his 40 years working on an assembly line for his Chinese bosses.

    June 6, 2013 at 10:25 pm |
    • Edweird69

      Amazing how someone can be so book-smart...then be so street-stupid.

      June 6, 2013 at 10:27 pm |
    • Kevin

      Consider that in the 1950s when we were the world leader in technology and science, that number was like 9/10 if not more.

      Don't think it's anything more than the honeymoon of living in an advanced society wearing off. Maybe it's just harder to identify the most prodigious among us. Maybe the exodus of our manufacturing base has left too many living check to check without time for personal advancement in between.

      Perhaps a turn towards anti-intellectualism is what's really to blame here. Personally I think the fault lies in the coddling of our financial sector and the withering of all other professions.

      June 6, 2013 at 10:39 pm |
    • Actually

      He wont be any less likely to work for "chinese bosses" than you or your offsrping regardless of his religion.
      Not only can the validity of your "survey" be validated there is not a perfect correlation or a causal relationship with believing in god created man ing when someone does itfrom nothing in the last 10,000 years and being Christian or saying a prayer in public or cheer

      June 6, 2013 at 10:57 pm |
  13. Fr33th1nk3r

    "I said advancements. Not inventions."

    Of course, because "inventions" would invalidate most of your nonsense.

    Rosa Parks and MLK Jr. can disagree with me all they want– the concept of freedom verses discrimination is not unique to Christianity or even the religious.

    June 6, 2013 at 10:21 pm |
    • Water_On_Mars

      I never said it was unique to Christianity. Nor do I believe that way.

      You guys were saying that prayer was worthless.

      June 6, 2013 at 10:30 pm |
    • Kevin

      I'm going to coat my body in seal fat and dance around the Simbaba tree for an hour to cure you of your demons.

      Now tell me again how useful you think prayer actually is?

      June 6, 2013 at 10:46 pm |
    • Water_On_Mars

      Very.

      June 6, 2013 at 10:50 pm |
    • "freethinker" come on!

      If you want to convince yourself that ignorance loves atheists as much as the devout just spend some time watching the flame wars between these factions online. Usually not a trace of intelligence. Just the worst aspects of blind faith from believers and atheists alike: some with unquestioning beliefs in a God just like the one in that Book, and others holding onto an undying conviction that nothing could be more divine than a mind with the ability to deny the existence of anything more divine.

      Read more: http://www.cracked.com/blog/4-things-both-atheists-believers-need-to-stop-saying_p2/#ixzz2VUmWHhXe

      June 6, 2013 at 10:58 pm |
    • "freethinker" come on!

      But in what may come as a surprise to the Internet, not believing in God will not, in itself, make you smart.

      Read more: http://www.cracked.com/blog/4-things-both-atheists-believers-need-to-stop-saying_p2/#ixzz2VUmy93ai

      June 6, 2013 at 10:59 pm |
  14. Edweird69

    Christian's don't care at all about offending other people's beliefs or non-beliefs. They believe if they don't disrespect us, they won't get to heaven. It is their duty to do so. So, it's actually an act of selfishness under the guise of "witnessing", or "saving" others from their dreadful deity.

    June 6, 2013 at 10:19 pm |
    • Stephanie

      Edwirdo: If you don't like it, don't listen to it. Kudos to this young man! God is proud of you and so am I. You have my utmost respect and then some. I'm glad somebody had the guts to stand up for what's right.

      June 6, 2013 at 10:26 pm |
    • Edweird69

      Stephanie – would you have felt the same way if he would've delivered a muslim prayer? Amazing how Christians have the monopoly on "what's right".

      June 6, 2013 at 10:28 pm |
    • snowboarder

      @stephanie, you think you speak for god. i see.

      June 6, 2013 at 10:29 pm |
    • Stinky Pinky

      Kind of hard not to listen to it if your forced. Would you listen to me if I had the floor and said there's no god?

      June 6, 2013 at 10:31 pm |
    • OOO

      @stephanie,
      I hope you realize that a middle-scholler would see right through your point.

      June 6, 2013 at 10:31 pm |
    • levi

      There are some limits on the 1st amendment (can't yell "fire" in a theater) offending someone isn't one of those limits.
      You don't have the right to not be offended.

      June 6, 2013 at 10:58 pm |
  15. Colin

    One person believes the ytalk to God, we call them a lunatic. A dozen do, we call them a cult. A billion do, we call them "Christians."

    June 6, 2013 at 10:19 pm |
    • Edweird69

      You can call them "Christians". I call them "hypocrites".

      June 6, 2013 at 10:23 pm |
  16. sounds too good

    Now this son-of-a-cult preacher is a martyr and has a job for life: preaching the troooth. In a few years he'll be making good money bashing gay scouts and doing other such good works for the cult-of-westboro. Great parenting!

    June 6, 2013 at 10:19 pm |
  17. GoneGreenWave

    First, to those who take some sort of cover in the fact that this rulebreaker and egomaniac was valedictictorian, don't. In a town of three street lights, what do you think it takes to be the "smartest" kid in class? For those who worry about minority religions in the graduating population, don't. Liberty would never tolerate the diversity you mention. That the audience cheered should tell you everything. Many commenters talk about "freedom of speech" but fail to recognize that they only support one sort of speech. Take it all or have none. And this kid broke the rules to make his viewpoint known. Lucky for him he made his big breach in the Bible belt. Lucky for him, he was mainstream in the area. An opposing – or even slightly different – viewpoint would not have been so welcomed. Liberty? Hyper-religiosity, one man's wishes over the good of the whole, a disobedient child championed by the ignorant herd. Oh irony, thy name is Liberty. Sad. This is the new America. It's the old America but with nicer cars and better cell phones – hate cloaked in "God's will," education cloaked in arrogance.

    June 6, 2013 at 10:19 pm |
  18. ImIrish

    Roy Costner – You are a very fine young man, and I have a wonderful niece, who also just graduated from high school, that I would like you to meet. Thank you for your wonderful speech 🙂

    June 6, 2013 at 10:18 pm |
    • Edweird69

      Yes, thanks for using my tax dollars to advertise your vile, hateful religion.

      June 6, 2013 at 10:21 pm |
    • Observer

      ImIrish,

      Hopefully your niece has learned respect for rules and authority and will stay away from someone who doesn't.

      June 6, 2013 at 10:26 pm |
  19. snowboarder

    a persons religion is almost universally a factor of the time and location of their life. their choice is rarely a choice in anything other than name.

    June 6, 2013 at 10:16 pm |
  20. snowboarder

    of course, the statement about taking prayer out of public school is misguided. who would complain if the morning prayer was to a god other than theirs?

    June 6, 2013 at 10:14 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.