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. NavinJay

    "This is what God wanted me to do"..so God spoke to him?? If God can speak to people so easily, why does he waste it on believers? If he spoke to atheists they wouldn't be atheists anymore.

    June 7, 2013 at 12:08 am |
    • faith

      u r deaf, dumb and blind

      June 7, 2013 at 1:32 am |
  2. NavinJay

    South Carolina: Where marrying your first cousin is not only legal, its recommended. And you're surprised people in this state act like this?

    June 7, 2013 at 12:06 am |
    • InFormed

      All too true.

      June 7, 2013 at 12:17 am |
  3. Reality

    The cure is for all new members of this blog:

    Just someone else suffering from the Three B Syndrome, i.e. Bred, Born and Brainwashed in religion and this case Christianity. The first and easiest of the available cures for all the variations of this Syndrome:

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated/reborn Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    • A constant cycle of reincarnation until enlightenment is reached and belief that various beings (angels?, tinkerbells? etc.) exist that we, as mortals, cannot comprehend makes for a no on Sikhism.

    Added details available upon written request.

    June 7, 2013 at 12:00 am |
    • boredofceleb

      So in thusly discrediting each faith listed, you feel that there should be no freedom of religion, unless the believers are considered lunatics?

      June 7, 2013 at 12:14 am |
    • boredofceleb

      I don't care if a person worships the "Flying Spaghetti Monster" as their deity. If it brings him/her personal gratification and a sense of peace within, then it is their right to believe it! Who are we to deny the spirituality of another human being?

      June 7, 2013 at 12:33 am |
    • G to the T

      Ironically – you are exactly right bored – but in a pluralistic society we need to be sure we are as INCLUSIVE as possible in the public sphere. It's also a lot harder for someone to believe you respect their religion when your religion says anyone who isn't a part of it is a horrible person who will burn for eternity...

      June 10, 2013 at 11:27 am |
  4. Bertha59

    The graduates at the ceremony had a right not to be prostelitized to. That is exactly what that valedictorian did.

    June 6, 2013 at 11:59 pm |
    • InFormed

      He had a job to do and he failed. Plain and simple. He failed to perform his duties. Sounds like he was coerced into making a political statement instead of validating the hard work of the graduating class. Pathetic.

      June 7, 2013 at 12:11 am |
  5. Kilgore Trout

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

    Isn't it funny how the righteous seem to assume that what they want to do is also what God wants them to do? Notice which comment came first, before he rephrased it as an afterthought. What a coincidence that God always just happens to agree with their own impulses...

    June 6, 2013 at 11:59 pm |
    • box1813

      "I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires." -Susan B Anthony

      June 7, 2013 at 12:00 am |
    • Kilgore Trout

      much better stated – thank you.

      June 7, 2013 at 12:03 am |
    • Mopery

      "All through the day, I me mine, I me mine, I me mine." – George Harrison

      June 7, 2013 at 12:15 am |
    • Herby Sagues

      It always surprises me that when people claim that God talked to them, whether they are considering lunatics or inspired depends on what God told them (e.g. "kill all those children" is not acceptable unless you lived two thousand years ago).
      If you tell your psychiatrist "I hear voices" he probably won't consider what the voices say as the deciding factor in determining your mental health.

      June 7, 2013 at 12:44 am |
  6. box1813

    If had started the prayer with Allahu Akbar, there would be a bloodthirsty roar coming from the Christian sects. I'm fine with free speech by adults in a public, non governmental setting. This is a public school, paid for by our taxes, and most certainly not an appropriate place for him to proselytize. Sure, the majority of the crowd that what he said was acceptable, but that doesn't make it ethical.

    But actual ethics don't matter in this country anymore. We don't value the person, only their political persona.

    (BTW, before the apologists show up: "Allah" is not a direct translation of "God", that word is "Ilah". Allahu Akbar is a direct proclamation of the greatness of Islam's prophet. Ilah is a generic name for a any deity.)

    June 6, 2013 at 11:58 pm |
  7. boredofceleb

    I misspoke in my earlier post about this young man's bravery as it is true that in the Bible Belt, his chances of getting "booed" from the podium were slim to none. But had he made a prayer to a faith other than Christianity, it's a sad commentary that he most likely would have heard the crowd's rage. This would only speak of the ignorance and bigotry of the majority. And yes, then THAT would have been true bravery. Very very sad that people can not respect the beliefs of others.

    June 6, 2013 at 11:57 pm |
  8. Michael

    I applaud this young man. I do not share his beliefs and still i applaud him. Our country is one of tolerance, free speech and separation of church and state. Everyone has the right to espouse their beliefs. Its is a basic belief of being an american. Atheist , Christian and Muslim all have the right to cite their beliefs that have driven them to their achievements. To the rest of you recall why america was founded for religious freedom from persecution be a real american.

    June 6, 2013 at 11:57 pm |
    • EnjaySea

      His point, and the point of his father and pastor that encouraged him to do this, was that we should bring prayer back into the school.

      I can't think of a way to express strongly enough how wrong they are. No one has the right to indoctrinate my children in their beliefs. Maybe this one prayer at one graduation seemed harmless enough, but an isolated prayer is not what they're trying to accomplish.

      June 7, 2013 at 12:04 am |
    • Mopery

      "To the rest of you recall why america was founded for religious freedom from persecution be a real american." You're absolutely wrong. The Pilgrims came here for religious freedom and freedom from persecution, but that was over a century and a half before the United States of America was founded. The U.S. was founded by a people tired of the oppression of the British Crown, tired of being heavily taxed without any say in how their taxes were being spent.

      June 7, 2013 at 12:11 am |
  9. snowboarder

    preaching to the majority. so brave.

    June 6, 2013 at 11:54 pm |
  10. Kilgore Trout

    Wow, a brainwashed kid in an isolated community says exactly what the brainwashed masses surrounding him want to hear. How brave! independent!

    June 6, 2013 at 11:53 pm |
    • Brainwashed.

      You have no idea what real brainwashing is.

      June 7, 2013 at 12:02 am |
    • Kilgore Trout

      Having been raised in a Southern Baptist community, I'm pretty sure I do.

      June 7, 2013 at 12:16 am |
    • Herby Sagues

      Having been raised as a Cristian and only achieved sanity at a later age, I can vouch for the "brainwashing" call. It is, by definition, exactly that. Even if it was true (all evidence points to the contrary) it would still be brainwashing because it is the systematic indoctrination of a your person on beliefs not based on evidence and scare tactics that prevent this young person of even daring to question the claims.

      June 7, 2013 at 12:48 am |
  11. snowboarder

    night kids. try not to stay up arguing the imaginary too late.

    June 6, 2013 at 11:51 pm |
  12. denis

    another self rightgeous bigot ignoring what he was warned about saying because the lord told him it would be OK.. how many times was that said during the spainish inquisition as they tortured anyone that spoke against them,that they didnt like or agree with. How would this guy feel if the chosen speaker wasnt himself and happened to be a muslim, a muslim that decided he or she needed bring their religion into this special and public ceremony for all ... yeah you know he would not approve and feel violated,, so there you are< separation of church and state always for everything is the only way u teabagger idiots so go fuk urselves,, my opinion my thoughts my free speech

    June 6, 2013 at 11:49 pm |
    • Water_On_Mars

      He earned the right to go up there and be honest.

      Rosa Parks was warned against sitting in the front of the bus. Thank God that Christian lady didn't obey their commands.

      Question authority.

      June 6, 2013 at 11:51 pm |
    • snowboarder

      it is ok to break the rules if it is for the deity that is the choice of your community. go figure.

      June 6, 2013 at 11:52 pm |
    • EnjaySea

      This is not a free speech issue. The problem is with his campaign, that this was just a stunt to promote - that prayer should be returned to schools.

      On that issue he is absolutely incorrect, and on the wrong side of the issue. Believers do not have the right to indoctrinate my children in their beliefs.

      June 6, 2013 at 11:55 pm |
    • midwest rail

      Oh for Pete's sake, this kid is NO Rosa Parks. You demean her struggle by even suggesting a comparison.

      June 6, 2013 at 11:55 pm |
    • Water_On_Mars

      At least he was honest and grateful.

      Not many kids today are.

      He is a good example.

      June 7, 2013 at 12:00 am |
    • Ave et Vale


      The Rosa Parks double in this scenario would have been a kid who stood up and said, "Please stop it, Roy. "

      June 7, 2013 at 12:03 am |
    • Water_On_Mars

      The poster mentioned the "spainish inquisition" as if that is what the speaker's religion is all about. The poster seems to be comparing this guy to torturers.

      So why not point out that 2 key players in the American civil rights movement were Christians. (Rosa and MLK)?

      And they both did something they were told not to do? Just like this student?

      June 7, 2013 at 12:11 am |
    • Ave et Vale


      And exactly what is your "movement" here?

      June 7, 2013 at 1:09 am |
  13. tpr2c

    also... this was unanimously approved...


    June 6, 2013 at 11:37 pm |
  14. ND4190

    This would have caused a riot at my high school and in my town, and not in a good way. I would have been appalled if this had happened at my graduation! As a future teacher, I truly believe that prayer should not be allowed in public schools, because it just leads to situations, such as this, which has the potential to make a lot of people uncomfortable. Also, not every student is a Christian, and no student should feel pressure to participate in something that they do not believe in. Note: This goes for the Pledge of Allegiance too!

    June 6, 2013 at 11:34 pm |
    • Rob

      Well, it clearly was not your high school. There was a ton of applause and it's what he wanted to say, so go ahead and embrace your PC shock troops but a significant portion of the country thinks this was great.

      June 6, 2013 at 11:42 pm |
    • JFCanton

      OK... but this isn't "in schools." Are you going to cut off his mike because he's talking about God? If potential offensiveness is the test for acceptability, then I'm thinking LOTS of stuff is verboten. Like 95% of the things that teenagers might want to talk about.

      June 6, 2013 at 11:44 pm |
    • Water_On_Mars

      He was just being honest. It was a ceremony and he was the valedictorian – he earned the right to share what was helpful to get him in that position. He was respectful and didn't take much time.

      No bid deal.

      June 6, 2013 at 11:49 pm |
    • someone answer this please

      Easy fix. Any kid can pray in school if they do it the way Jesus instructed (NOT making a public spectacle of it). You would think every Christian preacher would have noticed this passage. So, when these cult leaders raise a ruckus about allowing their cult followers to make a spectacle of praying, even though Jesus said NOT to... who are they serving? Hmmmmmmmmm?

      June 6, 2013 at 11:50 pm |
    • Stinky Pinky

      And a significant portion of the country is changing their mind.

      June 6, 2013 at 11:51 pm |
  15. Mopery

    "brings God to graduation". Far out man! What was he like? Did he look like you thought he would look? Did he smite anyone with his wrath? Was there a Q&A session? Did he mention why he keeps hitting Oklahoma with deadly tornados? Any plans to save us from ourselves? Will there be a concert tour? Does he enjoy watching the civil war rage in Syria? I mean, He was born in those deserts after all, you'd think current events would bother him enough to actually do something about it.

    June 6, 2013 at 11:31 pm |

      Like it or not, God is truth absolute, and rest assured, HE was there to have HIS name mentioned in grace.

      June 6, 2013 at 11:33 pm |
    • EnjaySea

      Right, Islam, like you know that.

      Don't confuse your desires with real information.

      June 6, 2013 at 11:38 pm |
    • hoosyurdadi

      Islam, like it or not the fact is you have ABSOLUTELY no evidence for your hypothetical god. Mockery of idiots can be contagious so I will refrain....

      June 6, 2013 at 11:58 pm |
  16. JFCanton

    It would have been considerably more awesome if he'd gone all the way and sung it. Something like the Malotte tune would give the uninterested something to which to relate to.

    June 6, 2013 at 11:27 pm |
  17. America

    If you want to make an atheist mad, just remind then of how ignorant they truly are. Watch the hornets of stupidity come out and buzz around their nest of worthlessness.

    June 6, 2013 at 11:17 pm |
    • Luigi

      ...patriatism (and name calling). The last refuge of the scoundrel.

      June 6, 2013 at 11:23 pm |

      Expect nothing better from a hindu atheist, ignorant self centered, other wise it is known as nut ism, self center ism, deserving to be in a mental hospital, then to be in public.

      June 6, 2013 at 11:31 pm |
    • Observer


      Speaking of being ignorant, please tell us about your belief in unicorns, talking animals, how the earth stopped for a day, and your support for slavery and discrimination against women and the handicapped.

      Should be interesting.

      June 6, 2013 at 11:34 pm |
    • tallulah13

      I will never understand why christians think that it's okay to lie, just as long as it insults someone who doesn't share their particular belief. Doesn't that violate the laws of the very god you claim to worship?

      June 6, 2013 at 11:39 pm |

      I am a strong believer of rights of every one, within limit of truth absolute, for rest, please consult, hindus, ignorant s, believers of fairy tails ,and hinduism racism, as their faith. product of hindu atheism, ignorant self center ism, other wise known as nut ism, or fruit and nuts by faith in California.

      June 6, 2013 at 11:43 pm |
    • EnjaySea

      Well, at least you've shown that believers are paragons of kindness and compassion.

      If only I could be just a little more like you!

      June 6, 2013 at 11:44 pm |
    • Jeff B

      I used to believe in god, and wss a music minister in my church for many years. Then I read an article in Psychology Today about priests who no longer believed in god. The article mentioned Richard Dawkin's "The God Delusion", which I read. Like. a house of cards, my belief evaporated literally overnight when I finally asked myself a bunch of questions that I had never thought to ask. I now realize that there is no afterlife, and choose to be good simply because it's the right thing to do, rather than because I think I'll be punished by god. As soon as Christians realize why they don't believe in the Roman, Greek and Norse gods of antiquity, they'll understand why atheists don't believe in their god.

      June 6, 2013 at 11:45 pm |
    • snowboarder

      @merica, as if you can actually judge ignorance.

      June 6, 2013 at 11:49 pm |
    • The real Tom

      Well, you've got admit, he's got plenty of experience with it.

      June 6, 2013 at 11:50 pm |

      Jeff B

      It is your experience about GOD, but rest assured, You and me, including every one else is dependent on truth to be, and truth absolute is GOD, try, if you can, to trick truth absolute of life, and live to take next breath.

      June 6, 2013 at 11:56 pm |
    • InFormed

      Ironically, this is exactly the same speech you give if you want to make a Christian angry, except that they don't even bother to think before they open their trap.

      June 7, 2013 at 12:15 am |
    • Arthur Bryant

      Look up the meaning of the word "ignorant" and you'll find the perfect description of a xtian fundamentalist.

      June 9, 2013 at 2:27 am |
  18. Saraswati

    While the self-centered att.itude may benefit him in the business world, the ignorance that failed to inform him of how this would turn many in the audience against Christianity will be a life-long burden too him.

    June 6, 2013 at 11:16 pm |
    • JFCanton

      But how much risk is there in preaching to the converted? Obviously that's who he's talking to; he's just ignoring everyone else. And it shouldn't be a big deal; it's his privilege. If any atheists in the audience didn't want to hear it, they should have studied harder than the preacher's son.

      June 6, 2013 at 11:35 pm |
  19. Vic

    Maybe the solution to all of this can be to make Prayer in Public Schools Discretionary instead of Prohibited by Federal Law. That way, community can decide what suits its Public School regarding this matter!

    June 6, 2013 at 11:12 pm |
    • Vic

      each community

      June 6, 2013 at 11:14 pm |
    • OOO

      I've got a community of Bhuddists you can move your kid into, if you like mob rule. Then your kid can be forced to listen to their prayers all day.

      June 6, 2013 at 11:14 pm |
    • NavinJay

      You mean kinda like Jim Crowe laws. if the community wants blacks and white only bathrooms in public, that should be okay too?

      June 6, 2013 at 11:18 pm |
    • snowboarder

      @vic, sure. let's just ignore the consti tution. let every community decide what religion can be exercised.

      June 6, 2013 at 11:22 pm |
    • The real Tom

      Vic, are you ever planning to grow a brain? Prayer isn't "prohibited in public schools."

      You're a moron.

      June 6, 2013 at 11:28 pm |
    • tallulah13

      It remains unconstitutional, Vic. Stop trying to destroy this country.

      June 6, 2013 at 11:40 pm |
    • Vic


      June 6, 2013 at 11:52 pm |
    • The real Tom

      "'public schools are banned from conducting religious observances such as prayer."

      How stupid are you, Vicky? THE SCHOOLS are prohibited from conducting prayer. NOT THE STUDENTS IN THEM. No kid has EVER been prohibited from praying, you fvcking moron. THE SCHOOLS cannot have or sponsor prayer.

      Why are fundies so dumb?

      June 6, 2013 at 11:55 pm |
    • Vic

      Roy Costner's protest revolves around the Freedom From Religion Foundation keeping student-led prayers out of the his school board meetings!

      June 7, 2013 at 12:04 am |
    • The real Tom

      Idiot, what do you not grasp? Students don't get to "lead prayers" in a public school setting. They can pray on their own. They cannot "lead a prayer." Do you not understand the difference? What the eff is wrong with you? Why is it your god can't hear your prayers unless they're uttered aloud in a group?

      I thought your god was omnipotent, Vicky. Why didn't he give you a brain?

      June 7, 2013 at 12:10 am |
  20. NavinJay

    He needs to repeat high school. He obviously didn't learn anything.

    June 6, 2013 at 11:11 pm |
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About this blog

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.