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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. Ann

    Just thinking of a few other surprise graduation speeches that might come up if those who insist freedom of speech can't be restricted at all for a high school kid:

    "I'd like to thank my [gay lover] for all the support through the years." (I'd be okay with that one, would you?)

    "I couldn't have made it through all those exams without the stimulants."

    "I'm so thankful that I have the opportunity to address you today. Thanks to my parents, my teachers, and most of all, to the guy who knocked up Suzy Smith so she dropped out – otherwise she would have been valedictorian instead of me."

    Any other ideas? (yeah, we've already heard the "thank you satan" or "thank you allah" ones.)

    June 7, 2013 at 10:36 am |
    • WASP

      here's another one:
      " i would like to thank all the student body that aren't val for leaving their guns at home."

      June 7, 2013 at 10:45 am |
    • Ann

      "Thank you all for coming today, and remember – PARTY AT THE LAKE TONIGHT!! Bring beer!"

      June 7, 2013 at 10:48 am |
    • Crow Feather

      "I'd like to take this opportunity to thank all those mothers and grandmothers and daughters and sons and families of the native Americans who came before us preparing the way for the white man to come. Yes, it was a great price to pay to give up your lives on the trail of tears, but just look at what we have accomplished in your names! Look at all the sports teams we have named after you! Look at the respect your heritage has engendered among the American people... Oh, and the spirits of their dead want to thank you for the blankets, they were so warm and full of small pox..."

      June 7, 2013 at 10:49 am |
  2. Riley

    Just because one doesn't believe in something doesn't mean that something doesn't exist.

    June 7, 2013 at 10:36 am |
    • JRNY

      Have you REALLY thought about that comment? I mean, really...

      June 7, 2013 at 10:38 am |
    • Theocracy?

      Just because one does believe in something doesn't mean that something does exist...

      June 7, 2013 at 10:39 am |
  3. lol??

    He's only a kid, people. The school of hard knocks awaits.

    June 7, 2013 at 10:35 am |
  4. Riley

    You all swat at a gnat and swallow a camel.

    June 7, 2013 at 10:34 am |
    • JRNY

      Well yes, we do often swipe at gnats, but there really aren't a lot of camels in America, so personally I think that you can't accuse us ALL of eating them.

      June 7, 2013 at 10:36 am |
    • JRNY

      Oh, and I'm a vegan, so I'm abnormally kind to gnats and I wouldn't eat a camel anyhow. Does your god make you eat camels and swat at gnats? Or does she prevent you from doing so? It's all so confusing since your post doesn't indicated that swatting at gnats is wrong or eating a camel is rather filling.

      June 7, 2013 at 10:41 am |
  5. stacey

    What everyone forgets is that a STUDENTS free speech is protected and that is continuously being upheld in this country.

    June 7, 2013 at 10:34 am |
    • The real Tom

      Read what the courts said about student-led prayers at public school events. Then let me know what YOUR legal background is and how you know more than the SCOTUS about the first amendment and the separation of church and state.

      June 7, 2013 at 10:35 am |
    • FreeFromTheism

      free speech has exceptions, and these exceptions are found in schools
      for other examples, try going into a theater and in the middle of the movie, start yelling "fire"
      you'll go to jail

      June 7, 2013 at 10:36 am |
    • Theocracy?

      Let me know how that goes when you have to sit through a several minute Muslim prayer at your sons graduation.

      June 7, 2013 at 10:36 am |
  6. jayluv

    Good for him!

    June 7, 2013 at 10:33 am |
  7. jzzz

    Nothing more than an act of vanity.

    June 7, 2013 at 10:33 am |
    • CougarLew

      You're absolutely correct. Could have said the prayer to himself before his speech. Why does the audience need to hear it.

      June 7, 2013 at 10:49 am |
  8. Robert

    For God gave his only Son so that you may live! Even for those who are too stupid to realize it he still loves you.....WE all will pray for those who do not believe.........

    June 7, 2013 at 10:32 am |
    • The real Tom

      Even for people who are too stupid to realize it, this nation isn't a theocracy and you don't get to do whatever you want just because your god told you to.

      June 7, 2013 at 10:34 am |
    • Theocracy?

      "WE all will prey on those who do not believe....

      June 7, 2013 at 10:34 am |
    • CougarLew

      Just don't pray for me publicly, please!

      June 7, 2013 at 10:46 am |
    • cedar rapids

      'Even for those who are too stupid to realize it he still loves you'

      so now you have shown you are a hater, which makes you a hypocrit. seriousy, why bother?

      June 7, 2013 at 11:01 am |
  9. Riley

    No one is trying to take rights away from other religious beliefs. This country was founded on Christian values so people can worship or not, as they please. If the Muslims are allowed to kneel on their pray mats, I am not offended. If I don't agree with Atheists, I don't try to shove God down their throats. However, when I am offended by one's religion, I don't attack either. The question for me is-(Why then, do other people try to control Christianity? Are we not allowed the same religious freedom as others? Our religion has been persecuted from the beginning. That is not fair. If an atheist has a program I just don't go.I will not be told I can't practice my beliefs in a free country where I have freedom of speech. If those people are offended, they should not listen, like I do theirs.I may not agree with someone, but they have a right to their beliefs and I will show them respect. I would like the same. People who are not Christians can't rightly judge those who are.
    Not all Christians are fanatics or lunatics, they just believe in One GOD and SAVIOR. You are free to believe that or NOT!
    That is Your choice of freedom. God doesn't force anyone on Himself. HE gave us free choice.

    June 7, 2013 at 10:31 am |
    • The real Tom

      "This country was founded on Christian values"

      No, it wasn't. It was founded on values that are not in any way unique to Christianity and predate it by thousands of years.

      June 7, 2013 at 10:32 am |
    • Thoth

      Treaty of Tripoli, Article 11: "As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion....."

      June 7, 2013 at 10:36 am |
    • CougarLew

      It's a PUBLIC school not a PRIVATE religious one.

      June 7, 2013 at 10:51 am |
    • cedar rapids

      'Why then, do other people try to control Christianity? Are we not allowed the same religious freedom as others?'

      Thing is NO RELIGION is allowed in schools. No one else is allowed more religious freedom that you, stop playing the victim.

      June 7, 2013 at 11:03 am |
  10. lol??

    "All politics is local." said a famous stamp non-collector.

    June 7, 2013 at 10:30 am |
  11. FreeFromTheism

    Disgusting.

    June 7, 2013 at 10:28 am |
  12. STFU

    only in America this is big deal.

    June 7, 2013 at 10:27 am |
    • FreeFromTheism

      and only in America people pull this stuff

      June 7, 2013 at 10:28 am |
    • Theocracy?

      Right! In Iran this would never be an issue! Why can't we be more like them? Right?...

      June 7, 2013 at 10:29 am |
  13. Thoth

    Our Unicorn, which art in Misty Meadow Land, Hallowe be thy Name. The Meadows come, thy will be done on flat earh As it is in Misty Meadow Land. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us for pi$$ing other's off, As we forgive those that pi$$ us off. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the mighty wolves, bears, archers, For thine is the Meadow, the rainbow power, and the glory for ever and ever and ever, which is a might long time great Unicorn. Perhaps we should talk.

    June 7, 2013 at 10:26 am |
    • lol??

      Hate the groom much?? Bully the bride much??

      June 7, 2013 at 10:33 am |
    • Sciece

      Thoth............and the sky is falling.....................the school failed too !

      No horn-y red beast needed.......no heaven either..........but they (meteorites) where hot when they where coming in.

      Life-Producing Phosphorus Carried to Earth by Meteorites

      June 4, 2013 — Scientists may not know for certain whether life exists in outer space, but new research from a team of scientists led by a University of South Florida astrobiologist now shows that one key element that produced life on Earth was carried here on meteorites.

      http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/06/130604153520.htm

      June 7, 2013 at 10:33 am |
    • lol??

      Mad scientists are a dime a dozen.

      June 7, 2013 at 11:02 am |
  14. Ann

    Does the school have no right whatsoever to insist that speeches be pre-approved?

    This arrogant little brat knew what the rules were. He accepted the responsibility of participating in the graduation ceremony, and was aware that the school required him to submit his speech for review.

    If he wanted to include a mention of his faith in his speech, he should have included it the version he submitted for approval. Sure, the reviewers might have asked him to edit some of it, to emphasize that his faith was a personal matter and what inspired HIM – but I'm sure they would have been able to find a satisfactory compromise. I'm an atheist, and I'd have been willing to work with the kid to help him express himself appropriately without crossing the line into preaching. All he had to do was work WITHIIN the system, follow the rules, and make his case.

    THAT would have been brave. THAT would have shown conviction.

    This was just a bratty outburst that said, "I can break whatever rules I want because I'm going to claim God told me to."

    June 7, 2013 at 10:26 am |
    • The real Tom

      Agreed. And why is it this self-centered twit needed to profess his faith and pray aloud in front of classmates who presumably have known about him and his faith for years? Why does he need to even tell anybody about his beliefs when his beliefs should be quite apparent from his own behavior?

      Couldn't everyone tell he was a Christian? Seems the fundies always think they can tell by behavior that someone isn't one. Why the need to show off?

      June 7, 2013 at 10:31 am |
    • Bill Deacon Jr.

      This kid like Bill Deacon believes that their belief in jesus christ allows them to disregard the rules and laws that everyone else has to follow. Most egregious examples being the RCC not reporting their criminal priests or the Westboro Baptists open prejudice against the LGBT community.

      June 7, 2013 at 10:40 am |
  15. Roger

    Maybe they need to change the name of the high school from Liberty to Creationism.

    June 7, 2013 at 10:25 am |
  16. Tannim

    Some Christian he is! Apparently he forgot about Jesus's admonition on HOW to pray in Mt. 6:5-6...

    June 7, 2013 at 10:25 am |
  17. CosmicC

    We don't have the full text of the speech, so we don't know if he was thanking his imaginary friend in the sky from a personal perspective ("I'm here because of god") or on behalf of the group ("We're here because of god"). The first should be ok, the second is not. I know this seems like splitting hairs, but it's the difference between protected personal speech and prohibited State recognition of religion.

    June 7, 2013 at 10:25 am |
    • The real Tom

      He recited the Lord's Prayer.

      It's pretty clear that what he did was not simply an acknowledgement of his own faith, but a full-bore attempt to make himself the prophet of the evening by lying to his teachers and showing how god-like he thinks he is.

      June 7, 2013 at 10:28 am |
    • G to the T

      "OUR Father"... honestly, the worst thing he could have done is the Lord's prayer (because it is traditionally a group prayer used as a way to reinforce belief). Then it's not a personal opinion, it's a political tactic and not one appropriate for the venue...

      June 10, 2013 at 4:04 pm |
  18. Martin

    Remember to bring rotten fruit to the next graduation you're invited to....just in case.

    June 7, 2013 at 10:23 am |
    • JRNY

      AMEN!

      June 7, 2013 at 10:25 am |
  19. Culuriel

    I can't wait until a Muslim kid is the valedictorian at this school!

    June 7, 2013 at 10:22 am |
    • Rev. Rick

      I wouldn't hold my breath...

      June 7, 2013 at 10:24 am |
    • Well actually...

      There have been several Muslim valedictorians, you just don't hear about them because they didn't inject their faith into a public ceremony for all.

      June 7, 2013 at 10:24 am |
    • JFCanton

      Odd to bring up Muslims when they don't have any doctrinal reason to have a problem with that particular prayer.

      June 7, 2013 at 10:25 am |
    • Rev. Rick

      @ Well actually....the poster said, "I can't wait until a Muslim kid is the valedictorian at this school!"
      If you have information that there have been Muslim valedictorians "at this school", please provide your source.
      Otherwise, I still wouldn't hold my breath.

      June 7, 2013 at 12:20 pm |
  20. annette

    This guy was supposed to be a valedictorian, and just wound up being a dick. I wonder how many wackos in his podunk HS will now see him as a role model.

    June 7, 2013 at 10:20 am |
    • JFCanton

      Well, duh, he's the valedictorian...

      June 7, 2013 at 10:23 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.