June 6th, 2013
10:37 AM ET

With his speech, valedictorian brings God to graduation

By Jessica Ravitz, CNN
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(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. Guestman

    If religious people were actually Godly in their character there would be no problems with prayers in schools or anywhere else!

    June 7, 2013 at 4:37 am |
  2. Concerned Patriot

    I'm confused. By my count, this kid broke the commandment about bearing false witness at least once (with forethought, when he lied to the principal) and violated the first amendment himself and supported the violation of the first amendment by others, thus breaking one of the highest laws of the land and the principals this country was founded on. Why on earth is anyone applauding him?

    June 7, 2013 at 4:26 am |
  3. Cindi

    I hope this little twit and his school have the pants sued off them! They had NO right to shove their religion down the throats of everyone at that ceremony. This would have put a bad memory on the day for those that are not from the holier than thou club! NO RELIGION IN SPONSORED PUBLIC SCHOOL FUNCTIONS! What part of infringing on someone else's rights do you NOT get? OH..yea..Christian...figures..

    June 7, 2013 at 4:25 am |
    • Joxer the Mighty

      What's your deal? He wasn't shoving anything down anyone's throat. Why should he not have the right to pray when he is the one giving the speech? The school is not endorsing the prayer just because it is a school function.

      June 7, 2013 at 4:53 am |
    • Steve Short

      Sounds like you have anger issues to me.

      June 7, 2013 at 7:35 am |
    • The real Tom

      Joxer, read the SCOTUS decision about student-led prayer at football games. What he did violates the Constitution.

      June 7, 2013 at 7:38 am |
  4. Bootyfunk

    and if a muslim kid wanted to recite prayers from the qu'ran or an atheist wanted to mention how he specifically doesn't believe in god - everyone would have been up in arms. but it's a passage from the bible, it's christian - so it's okay. instead of wasting time thanking an invisible sky fairy, he should spend more time thanking the professors who gave him the knowledge to stand at the head of the class. want to give a speech about how awesome your god is? do it some place else.

    June 7, 2013 at 4:11 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      So only speak on what you feel comfortable about him speaking. I could see if the kid was trying to actively convert folks in the audience, but he was just thanking God.

      If you are for limiting speech, then all you are doing is trying to shove your belief on his speech.

      June 7, 2013 at 5:19 am |
    • The real Tom

      No, he wasn't, Piddles.

      June 7, 2013 at 7:39 am |
  5. Common Sense Sam

    Headline should read: Deluded student wastes peoples time talking about his imaginary friend after promising he wouldn't.

    June 7, 2013 at 4:06 am |
  6. Hesavlie

    Jesus is lord, always has been, always will be. If we don't praise Him, the rocks will cry out.

    June 7, 2013 at 3:56 am |
    • Chathunk

      That's just the noise of the rocks in your head rattling around in otherwise empty space...

      June 7, 2013 at 4:19 am |
    • Fritz Hohenheim

      I think you got it wrong dude! Cthulhu is the Lord, always has been and always will be. Better repend before he awakes and eats you!

      June 7, 2013 at 4:37 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      Your god, not mine. Praise is given to my fellow human and not an imaginary thing. Atheists tend to give credit where credit is due.

      June 7, 2013 at 4:46 am |
    • Arthur Bryant

      You do realize you're batsh!t crazy, right?

      June 9, 2013 at 5:36 am |
  7. Jim

    The kid was valedictorian and got to give the speech. If his religion was a big part of his life, I think it's ok to talk about that, or quote from the Lord's Prayer, but the actual act of prayers... well, Jesus told him not to do that in public, and he did it anyway. So what Jesus says must not really be all that important, certainly not as important as creating an audience and celebrity for himself. Oh, and violating the rules of the school and his word to the principal. His pastor must have left out the lesson on integrity during his sermons.

    June 7, 2013 at 3:47 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      Actually it wasn't. It was stated on Piers Morgan's show last night that what he was did was against the rules. He should have been stopped by the officials and admonished publicly for breaking the rules.

      June 7, 2013 at 4:15 am |
  8. http://www.thedubaicitychurch.org

    I liked the blog and various experinces shared here.It was really inspiring for a new believer like me.
    Praise the lord Almighty

    June 7, 2013 at 3:45 am |
    • Fritz Hohenheim

      Maybe you remind him of his almighty-ness before the next 1000 babies starve in Africa or so. Just an idea.

      June 7, 2013 at 4:38 am |
  9. Jim

    “Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray while standing in synagogues and on street corners so that people can see them. Truly I say to you, they have their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:5-6).

    June 7, 2013 at 3:43 am |
    • Athy

      Yeah, right.

      June 7, 2013 at 3:54 am |
    • Jim

      "yeah, right"... what? an attempt at a pithy comment with no substance or value?

      June 7, 2013 at 4:00 am |
  10. Dana

    He stood up for what he believes in – would the response have been the same if it had been a Muslim or Buddhist prayer – how about a pagan chant??

    Same rights for all.

    June 7, 2013 at 3:36 am |
  11. cedarEyes

    Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.

    June 7, 2013 at 3:29 am |
    • Fritz Hohenheim

      There's art in heaven? How about booze?

      June 7, 2013 at 4:39 am |
    • Elvira

      Yeah, witch art!

      June 7, 2013 at 4:45 am |
    • Arthur Bryant

      So, what IS his name, Art or Hallowed? I vote of Art.

      June 9, 2013 at 3:02 pm |
  12. IpseCogita

    This getting celebrity dates thing is getting out of hand.

    June 7, 2013 at 3:13 am |
  13. Kona

    ......and now he's off to NY for the TV shows! I wonder if he'll stop by over at CBN?

    June 7, 2013 at 3:04 am |
  14. Kona

    God doesn't need anyone to stand up for Him (everyone knows God is a man). I would think that the creator of the universe has no problem standing up for himself.

    June 7, 2013 at 2:58 am |
  15. Count Boogie

    We'll stop meddling in your school prayer as long as we DON'T HAVE TO PAY FOR IT.
    If you want to make your school private, you can pray until your teeth fall out (which will be the only thing that comes from it)
    But if you want to go to a public school, we have the right as those who pay for it to say "we don't want your imaginary friend in our schools" that is the freedom that humans fought for, when all your lofty prayers for god's help and freedom did nothing.

    June 7, 2013 at 2:53 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      we have the right as those who pay for it to say..... Since, we as Christians, Muslims, Buddhist, Pagans, Hindu and even Satanist... also pay United States taxes then is this why we all as Americans have the freedom of speech?

      June 7, 2013 at 3:09 am |
    • GEORGE

      Except that religious organizations and churches get tax-exempt status-can't have it both ways

      June 7, 2013 at 3:58 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      The Lords Prayer is specific to christians and not pagan or muslims or any others.

      June 7, 2013 at 4:18 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      The Lords Prayer is specific to Christians and not pagan or Muslims or any others.

      That the Lord's Prayer does not expand to those Faiths does not change the point that Boogie wishes to state that he has to pay for this kid praying in his speech. Mentioning all of those groups just points to the fact that Atheist are not the only ones paying with their taxes. Myself, as a Christian, pays my taxes just like he does and every Muslim, Pagan, Jewish and other Faiths do.

      except that religious organizations and churches get tax-exempt status-can't have it both ways

      Unless this kid speaks as a pastor, imam, or rabbi... he only represents himself and chances are he has paid taxes, just like you and me.

      June 7, 2013 at 5:16 am |
  16. John

    This kid is an idiot. I hope someone sues the school district over it. Don't bother responding to this, I won't check back. Thank GOD for separation of church and state! 😉

    June 7, 2013 at 2:53 am |
    • Athy

      Way to go, John!! Agree 1000%,

      June 7, 2013 at 3:57 am |
  17. Karin

    Christians are brainwashed. It is impossible to reason with them. For now, I just love to poke fun at them. I guess it is my way of dealing with their inability to think straight. If I were in the audience, after the young mans speech, I would of said something to the tune of; 'Exactly how did you manage to graduate? This is an embarrassment to our education system. I truly fear for the business that employs you and the community that suffers the consequences of that employment.'

    I guess from that you can tell how I feel about Christians, LOL. Seriously, they go out of their way to play the ignorant card. Implicate ignorance should not expect respect.

    June 7, 2013 at 2:30 am |
    • lol??

      "Christians are brainwashed.............."

      That reminds me,

      "2Cr 10:5 Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ;"

      June 7, 2013 at 2:40 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      Karin. What do you wish to reason about? Does the ability to be "reasoned with" mean that we are required to agree on a subject? I think there are many of us who have and do have great relationships outside of our Faith, so that pretty much shoots down your view of Christians. Within Christianity, my Faith, we spend more time debating and arguing, internal issues and doctrine, that all I see is people trying to "reason what is right or wrong".

      The point come to within you Karin. If two people meet and disagree on one subject... but agree on many others, does it mean that both fail to be reasoned with because of that lone subject? Folks can be reasoned with, but if at the end of the day if one does not win the other over their view, just means that they disagree. Basically, you are sounding just like a few new people who post here... Atheist and Faithful... they come in and feel because they hold the ultimate opinion or position on Faith, that anyone who continues to disagree must be unreasonable. Sorta that no one on either side has never heard all of the Faith or Non-Faith arguments until they logged in.

      To be able to successfully reason, you have to understand that others hold their views ...just as strong as you hold yours.

      June 7, 2013 at 2:45 am |
    • Continuing Education


      There is no such phrase as "I would of said". If you mean "I would have said", the contraction is "I would've said".

      June 7, 2013 at 2:52 am |
    • Common Sense Sam

      @mark. There is no reason in religion. That is why religion cannot be argued for or against just like a hallucination it is only "experienced" internally. And that is why people kill themselves and/or others over it. Reason is abandoned for faith.

      June 7, 2013 at 4:19 am |
    • Science

      Hey Markie enjoy

      Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell

      Next Showing: June 07 @ 12:45 AM


      June 7, 2013 at 4:45 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      And that is why people kill themselves and/or others over it.

      ...is that all people do for Faith? We just kill ourselves and others? We have churches in the community doing outreach in places that the United States government fears to go within their own boarders. I know all you may see of Faith and religion is the killing and the death but if you opened your heart and mind you would see that there are many more of us in the community for the positive than the negative.

      here is no reason in religion. That is why religion cannot be argued for or against
      Question, then is every interaction you have with a person of Faith a battle of Atheist vs Faithful? If you live to challenge anothers belief, how are you that much different from the 700 Club types on our side?

      June 7, 2013 at 5:39 am |
  18. Robbie

    I am a Christian but my wife is an atheist. Over time she has slowly has been becoming more involved in my church with little or no pressure from me. She was born and raised in China with the atheist indoctrination but I have never seen her be as rude as the self proclaimed atheist on this board. She asks why they gripe so much over ten seconds and why during tradegy it's okay but not daily. I told her I don't know. She told me that she can't understand why people get so mad when other people pray for nothing but positive things. I agree, Christian are easy to mock but atheist are always defensive with the exception of my friends and family in China. Faith is Christianity if you don't have it that your choice but it doesn't make it wrong. You can't prove God exist or doesn't exist, but you can prove Jesus did as well as many other prophets in the bible. What proof does atheism has, nothing except unanswered question and that is why Attack all other religions.

    June 7, 2013 at 2:29 am |
    • Karin

      I know you have heard this before, you can keep your fingers in your ears if you wish. The simple truth is we do not have all the answers. Implying that a god did it. One in which we have absolutely no evidence for... does not imply that this god for which we have no evidence for is the cause. Any reasonable individual would understand that implying that a god did it, would require proof of said god, would require evidence as to how this god came to be and what made him/her, what made ... what made... what made-> infinite loop! One would also need to ask him/herself if their god is real (evidence of course), why is the knowledge of this god such a small footprint within our history. As there were 1000+'s of gods and myths prior and which still exist. Anyway, I can't help you with your reasoning skills, though I can always hope 🙂

      June 7, 2013 at 2:38 am |
    • Tracy

      Here's the problem. Had the valedictorian been Muslim and started saying an Islamic prayer, the reaction would have been COMPLETELY different. Freedom of speech would have gone right out the window.

      June 7, 2013 at 3:09 am |
    • Hesavlie

      Strange that a believer would marry an atheist.

      June 7, 2013 at 3:58 am |
    • Common Sense Sam

      "atheist indoctrination"... Lol. I wish you could understand how stupid that idea is. What religion would most people be if they didn't have parents to indoctrinate them into one. Answer: noon. NO religion is our natural state. Atheism in the lack of or shedding of indoctrination.

      June 7, 2013 at 4:02 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      Robbie: Everyone i born an Atheist, you are indoctrinated in to belief, not disbelief.
      "I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."
      ...Stephen F Roberts

      June 7, 2013 at 4:20 am |
    • Fritz Hohenheim

      Dear religion! While you debated over what chicken sandwich is OK to eat, I just landed on the moon!
      Your Pal Science

      June 7, 2013 at 4:42 am |
  19. lol??


    Janet Reno

    Bet she could make him cry!!

    June 7, 2013 at 2:14 am |
  20. Common Sense Sam

    Imagine if the speech was about how imaginary gods and the enlightenment and release from self-hatred that comes from leaving those childish beliefs behind. The amount of howling and the demands by the numerous religious zealots would be deafening. Such terrible hypocrites all of them.

    June 7, 2013 at 1:55 am |
    • lol??

      Terrible, just terrible.

      June 7, 2013 at 2:00 am |
    • dw


      June 7, 2013 at 2:02 am |
    • Mark from Middle River

      So, since both sides are doing the same thing then at least they have that in common. 🙂

      June 7, 2013 at 2:17 am |
    • Common Sense Sam

      Really? Show me the article about the speech where the student talked about how free thinking and atheism was so great. And on the off chance you can find one I will say the same thing, both kids are selfish trolls that should have been pulled from the stage. I am not ok with hypo racy, but apparently you are.

      June 7, 2013 at 2:35 am |
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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.