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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. protected -by-first-amendment

    This young brave man speech is protected under the 1st amendment.

    Our rights do not stop at the classroom or school house doors.

    We the people. ..

    You have a right to express, speak, draw, write and proclaim your faith or lack of faith.

    You could be offended, but you cannot prevent someone speech – in any form, forum, location or how they express it.

    Everyone must live by this. Atheists or religious people.

    June 7, 2013 at 9:05 am |
    • G to the T

      That's fine, but he wasn't saying a personal prayer, he was trying to lead the group in prayer. That's a VERY different thing.

      June 10, 2013 at 2:29 pm |
  2. Joel

    I am from the county that this young man lives in and am very proud of the stand he took and the courage to do what he did. People can say what they want but this Country was founded on the belief by our forefathers in God. It's now all the other belief's that is going to be the downfall of it. I believe it was his right to speak his heart and I say God bless him for doing so!!!

    June 7, 2013 at 9:01 am |
    • snowboarder

      a high school graduation is not a pulpit. how many in support of this young man would be equally supportive if it was not their religion.

      June 7, 2013 at 9:03 am |
    • cedar rapids

      'It's now all the other belief's that is going to be the downfall of it. '

      you insulting little man.

      June 7, 2013 at 9:21 am |
    • Michael

      Actually, this country was founded on freedom FROM religion. The kid lied to his teachers. What does that say about his belief system? That it's OK to lie as long as you're preaching about your mythology? The kid preached at a public school function, funded by taxpayers. That violates the separation clause. You want to stand up in church and go all giddy? Fine. But stop shoving your belief system down MY throat. And I would put my living an honorable life above a religious one any day of the week. Religious hypocrites cannot touch my honor, nor can they take it away from me.

      June 7, 2013 at 9:46 am |
  3. michael1601

    Want to know the truth about the origins of Christianity and the Bible? Here is an excellent, historically accurate essay. Christians, I dare you to read this...

    http://www.bidstrup.com/bible.htm

    June 7, 2013 at 9:00 am |
  4. cindy

    Thanks be to GOD for young gentlemen like Roy Costner IV. This country is in need of a savior!

    June 7, 2013 at 9:00 am |
    • Michael

      What I find so funny is that people's savior stares them in the mirror yet they need mythology to know right from wrong? How to treat people properly? When it's safe to lie, steal and cheat? WRONG ANSWER ... it is NEVER right to violate your honor.

      June 7, 2013 at 9:49 am |
    • Arthur Bryant

      A savior? Really? Gee, I thought Jesus was your savior. This country needs your religious – and ALL religious – beliefs OUT of government. Moron.

      June 9, 2013 at 5:54 pm |
  5. derp

    Watch as infamous atheist 'Thunderfoot" crumbles under simple questions.....

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hGjaEMP8ACU

    June 7, 2013 at 8:59 am |
    • derp

      'Thunderfoot' converts to christianity after continuous defeat......

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PP5A1Ad7U38

      June 7, 2013 at 9:00 am |
    • snowboarder

      infamous? never heard of him.

      June 7, 2013 at 9:02 am |
    • michael1601

      Eric obviously doesn't understand sarcasm. He also doesn't understand thuderfoot's assertions. He's so brainwashed that he can't, for a second, entertain the possibility that he could be wrong. He reminds me of people who argue that astrology is real. There may be a God – a higher power, or a creator – but that does not mean Jesus had any relation to him. Those are two very different questions.

      June 7, 2013 at 9:11 am |
    • cedar rapids

      sorry, but who is this person?

      June 7, 2013 at 9:22 am |
  6. CosmicC

    It's unclear from the article if he was saying a personal prayer, which is ok, or was attempting to lead a prayer, which is not. It does seem as if this district has a real problem with separation of church and state. Why is it evil when muslim fundamentalists require religious indoctrination in school, but ok when its christians who do so?
    As far as pre-approved student graduation speeches go, I'm all for the students going against the rules, as long as they respect their audience.

    June 7, 2013 at 8:58 am |
    • Rebekah Filson

      Why is it not ok for him to lead a prayer as a student attending the assembly? He is not a representative of the staff/facutly he is a student, speaking as a student, at an event for graduating students. The assertion that this is not protected under the 1st Amendment is patently false.

      June 7, 2013 at 10:42 am |
    • Rebekah Filson

      Also, please understand the meaning of the word indoctrination, because nothing this student did qualifies. Oh, and if Muslim did the exact same thing I would not have an issue with it.

      June 7, 2013 at 10:43 am |
    • G to the T

      Rebekah – and who was he representing on that podium? The student body? If so, what right did he have to assume they all believed the same as him that he could speak for them in this case?

      June 10, 2013 at 2:40 pm |
  7. Lex

    The real issue is that, although all Americans have a very strong right of free speech under the 1st amendment, in practice, cultural pressures, political correctness, brain dead (no I'll say idiot) school bureacrats, and, yes, perhaps a bit of fear, restrain people from making legitimate, albeit controversail points.

    So although I am an athiest, hurray for this young person who had the guts to say what he was thinking rather than the ritually purified BS that was approvedl

    June 7, 2013 at 8:57 am |
    • Dave

      Thank you for your gracious reply. We need more of your kindness on these boards.

      June 7, 2013 at 9:02 am |
    • The real Tom

      That's bunk. He was simply bellowing his beliefs because he thought he had a bully pulpit and wanted to show what a sanctimonious, self-righteous ass he was by thumbing his nose at the rule of law, the administration, and the minority who don't believe as he does.

      His act was rude, insensitive, and crass.

      June 7, 2013 at 9:05 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      I would think that would make you a fan Tom

      June 7, 2013 at 9:29 am |
  8. Raoul Duke, Jr.

    I can't wait until a Muslim stand up and starts praying in Arabic.

    June 7, 2013 at 8:57 am |
  9. James

    Is there a group called "Freedom from speech" or "Freedom from the press"? That is after all the equivalent to the opposition of "freedom from religion". They're very poor reading comprehension students indeed if they believe that "Freedom from Religion" is what the founding fathers intended. I don't share most of the father's religion but I can read and comprehend.

    June 7, 2013 at 8:57 am |
    • CosmicC

      They absolutely did intend to remove all religion from the public forum. Adams, for instance, was against prayers in congress. The reason was not to keep people from their religion, but to keep people from having someone else's beliefs imposed upon them and to prevent membership in a particular religion from providing any power advantage (e.g. access to government services, access to benefits of living in a free society, etc.).

      June 7, 2013 at 9:08 am |
  10. doughnuts

    Nobody took God out of our schools.
    What was removed was government sanction of one particular faith over all others.

    It really is that simple.

    June 7, 2013 at 8:56 am |
  11. El

    Way to go, Roy! Glad to see someone stand up to all those bullies who want to suppress freedom of speech and freedom of religion. All those who are blasting his decision, would you be blasting if it was a Muslim or a Hindu or an atheist? I think not. Seems to me there is a bias against Christians expressing their beliefs, yet if a young Muslim girl in a head covering gave a valediction speech and praised Allah, I don't think there would be any uproar. In fact, I think people would be applauding her as well, for giving credit to who has influenced her life, just as Roy did. Or if a Hindu was up there and quote from their holy texts, people would probably embrace that for it's diversity or multi-culturalism. Yes why should quoting from the Bible be any different-that is HIS culture, and HIS childhood talks about, he isn't saying that everyone else must listen. If he quoted some quote from Maya Angelou that someone didn't agree with, would that person be offended by that? Just because you don't believe it, doesn't mean you have to be offended by it. It's not like the school or the government was forcing anyone to convert to Christianity. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; ; or abridging the freedom of speech;" Congress has NOT made a law establishing any religion here. And they also should not (and so far, have not) prohibit the free exercise thereof or abridge this man's freedom of speech. I think if a person who has shown themselves to be hard-working intelligent (as Roy did, being valedictorian), they should say what they like, acknowledge who they like, in their public address. Would someone who didn't grow up with a dad, or had a bad relationship with their dad, object to speech honoring a person's own father and giving credit to his dad? Would people ridicule him for thinking his dad is great? Would people belittle his intelligence by saying, 'His dad had nothing to do with his accomplishments and success, it's all his own hard-work'? Honoring a person's own God, is very deeply personal, and it's nice to see someone be open about who and what has given shape to his life.

    June 7, 2013 at 8:56 am |
    • Thatguy100

      Are you, in fact, an idiot?

      Yes, I would blast him for promoting/preaching any religion, muslim, hindu, christian, or otherwise. If he wants to praise god on his own time in his own way, then he may do that. But he had a captive audience and was a recognized speaker at a school sponsored event, making him subject to the same rules that prevent teachers from leading prayer in their classroom.

      If you really think christians are the ones being persecuted, you have no grasp of the positions of everyone else in this country. We are a secular nation, and the rules exist to protect eveyone equally, not to persecute anyone.

      June 7, 2013 at 9:04 am |
    • cedar rapids

      bull, if a muslim was up there praising allah then you wouldnt have heard him above all the boos that would have started, and it is an outright lie to try to claim otherwise.

      June 7, 2013 at 9:25 am |
  12. Disgusted

    What would have been the crowd's reaction if he'd sincerely given thanks to Allah?

    June 7, 2013 at 8:56 am |
    • El

      probably polite applause.

      June 7, 2013 at 8:57 am |
    • cedar rapids

      you wouldnt have heard them above all the boos.

      June 7, 2013 at 9:25 am |
    • Michael

      @El – you cannot even believe your own words, can you? Seriously? "Polite Applause"? I wouldn't be a bit surprised if someone packing wouldn't ave plinked him for such a violation of proper decorum!! How DARE anyone exercise their freedom of speech while praising some pagan doll in the sky ... all because HIS mythology is not MY mythology. Come on ... Get Real.

      June 7, 2013 at 9:55 am |
    • CosmicC

      @El – I doubt that.

      June 7, 2013 at 10:09 am |
  13. The GOP need to pack up and leave

    God's omnipotent, right? All powerful? He doesn't need anyone to stand up for him.
    Also, we don't know if God is a 'him' in the first place.

    June 7, 2013 at 8:54 am |
  14. liz

    Sorry Roy there is no god and did they not teach you about separation of church and state ?

    June 7, 2013 at 8:54 am |
  15. Bhawk

    The great lie that Christians are being persuacuted–They won't let my kids sacrific a goat at the appointed 9:00 am time in our school. Yet Christians kids can pray anytime they want.

    June 7, 2013 at 8:54 am |
  16. Robert

    Just what the world needs, another Jeezus salesman! Boy, do we need that!

    June 7, 2013 at 8:51 am |
  17. Jeffro B Kirkus

    Religion is the biggest scam in the history of humanity

    June 7, 2013 at 8:47 am |
  18. Brian

    When a young person stands up to authority, I feel good.

    June 7, 2013 at 8:47 am |
    • The real Tom

      Let us all know how your feel about it when one of your employees tells you to blow it out your ear.

      June 7, 2013 at 9:06 am |
    • Thatguy100

      When young people stand up to unfounded, unjust, tyrannical authority, I agree. But this wasn't a case of that.

      This young man violated the first amendment establishment clause by explicitly endorsing a specific deity and praying as a school sponsored speaker at a school event to a captive audience. If the salutorian had gotten up and said "That guy is full of it. Allah is the one true god, and Mohammad is is prophet", he would barely have gotten to "Death to the infidels" before someone would have tackled him.

      I am all for people questioning the rules and rational discussion. But this was a person saying "I don't like that rule" and throwing it out. This wasn't objection to authority, this was imposing his own divine authority on others.

      June 7, 2013 at 9:08 am |
    • Rebekah Filson

      He is not there representing the administrators, he is there as a representative of the graduating class. Therein is the flaw of your argument.

      June 7, 2013 at 10:47 am |
    • G to the T

      Reb – actually you prove the point. By espousing a particular religious view he stopped representing his class and only represented his own opinion. That's part of why this type of thing is discouraged.

      June 10, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
  19. clevercandi

    what a shame those who disagreed with his stance didn't have the integrity to just get up and walk out.

    I know I certainly would have.

    June 7, 2013 at 8:42 am |
    • Durannie

      Even if your kid was graduating?

      June 7, 2013 at 8:43 am |
    • Austin

      do you know what a "walk in " is ? when the devil shows up?

      walk out of heaven into hell? walk out on God into spiritual darkness?

      June 7, 2013 at 8:44 am |
    • sam stone

      oooh, heaven and hell, austin.....pretty scary, for those who believe in that tripe

      June 7, 2013 at 8:47 am |
    • The real Tom

      Austin, where is your dream journal? When are you going to publish it so we can all say we knew you when it was just a dream you had before an actual event occurred?

      June 7, 2013 at 9:01 am |
    • ReligiOFF

      Just another example of how the religious folk, for some reason, have a complete inability to grasp the SIMPLE idea of separation of church and state. I mean good for him for having an opinion, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, but follow the rules of society. If there is an all powerful, all knowing God, does He/She/It really NEED you to stand up for Him/Her/It? It just makes you sound self-righteous when you say crap like that!

      June 7, 2013 at 9:10 am |
    • Michael

      @Austin – Our telescopes can scan back about 12 billion light years. Where in all of that expanse is "heaven"? Over the past 50 or so years, we've mapped the earth's interior pretty well. Show me hell. Do you understand that the concept of heaven and hell, as currently understood, was a fabrication of the Catholic Church during the 1500's? Paul's second letter to the church describes creating a heaven ON EARTH ... Why is it that an atheist knows this yet the believers do not? That just slays me ...

      June 7, 2013 at 10:00 am |
  20. Robin

    How would the god loving audience react if he was Muslim praising Allah? It was nothing more than pandering to the crowd majority.

    June 7, 2013 at 8:41 am |
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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.