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June 6th, 2013
10:37 AM ET

With his speech, valedictorian brings God to graduation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eby has an answer to this.

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

- CNN Writer/Producer

Filed under: Belief • Christianity

soundoff (5,383 Responses)
  1. Kelcy

    Time to eliminate student speeches at graduation since clearly too many have learned that their word (i.e., their providing the speeches for approval) means nothing. They have no honor.

    June 7, 2013 at 10:56 am |
  2. JFCanton

    I have a big problem with the fact that presumably intelligent people have convinced themselves that this is unconst-tutional. The reason why *organized* student-led prayer-which is the practice that has been adjudicated-is not permitted in public school is because the state of organization implies that the school is advocating it.

    If the students themselves want to spontaneously shout out prayers, that doesn't reflect either way on what the school is representing. You may need to take it to the next level and evaluate whether the school is disciplining students who cause religious-themed disturbances just as much as any other disruptive student (e.g. someone who started a political chant in an assembly). But at a graduation, that's gonna be hard, right?

    June 7, 2013 at 10:55 am |
    • Vic

      Hunter "Patch" Adams

      June 7, 2013 at 11:00 am |
    • The real Tom

      Oh, look. Vicky is channeling LoopyLionass.

      June 7, 2013 at 11:15 am |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Would you post an identical message here if the kid had discussed how atheism had helped him or how islam had helped him? Please be honest.

      June 7, 2013 at 11:30 am |
  3. nilla

    I fully support letting valedictorians recite whatever magic spell they want during their speeches, provided they don't cause things to light on fire or fly around the room.

    June 7, 2013 at 10:52 am |
  4. albie

    This is wrong and disrespectful to the rest of the graduating class – religion has no place at schools

    June 7, 2013 at 10:52 am |
    • truth truth truth 2013

      Watch what you say because GOD sees, hears everything

      June 7, 2013 at 10:56 am |
    • imdayzed

      Grow up. It's not disrespectful to honor your belief. It's disrespectful to dishonor someone else's belief. Not like anyone was forced to say it with him. I wouldn't be disrespected if someone said another religion's prayer or if they used it to talk about something they believed in. He earned the honor of making that speech and he obviously feels that his faith had something to do with it.

      June 7, 2013 at 11:01 am |
    • cedar rapids

      'I wouldn't be disrespected if someone said another religion's prayer or if they used it to talk about something they believed in.'

      oh i am sure you would have a few words to say if an atheist took that opportunity to slam religion.

      June 7, 2013 at 11:07 am |
  5. Not Surprised

    Wow – lots of hate in the comments toward this kid. Can we really call ourselves open minded and simultaneously express hatred toward someone else simply because we disagree over the issue of deity?

    I don't agree with everything he said, but come on, people. What makes his actions any different from any other non-violent protester in the history of the world? A policy was in place that he felt was wrong, so he opposed it publicly and in a gracious manner. Tons of people have done that and been hailed as heroes for it. We all need to get over ourselves. Cripes.

    June 7, 2013 at 10:52 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      See my reply below to Phillipjbaker1952

      June 7, 2013 at 10:54 am |
    • The real Tom

      There's nothing courageous about accepting an honor under false pretenses. He lied about his speech.

      June 7, 2013 at 10:54 am |
    • JRNY

      No. We don't need to get over this kid. He broke the law. We pay taxes to public schools. There are private, religious schools that he can go to, or could have graduated from that would have allowed him to do what he felt was the most important. Instead he made a HUGE show of tearing up his speech and then slowly chanted an old prayer that does not have a place in a public school. This is not a civil rights movement, this is breaking the law. This has nothing to do with being open minded.

      June 7, 2013 at 10:56 am |
    • Religious kooks unite

      Because he imposed his beliefs upon others without their consent. Period. It's really no different than if I blew cigar smoke in your face. Would you find that offensive? I bet you would.

      You want to express your religious beliefs? Great. Go to church Sunday or go to a park any day and stand and speak.

      If the imaginary god really knew everything, the student could give thanks silently and the imaginary god would have known all the same.

      June 7, 2013 at 11:07 am |
    • Not Surprised

      I'm not saying he was courageous or cowardly. You missed my point.

      How did he break the law? It was a school policy in place because a civil group complained, not a governmental statute voted on by the public or enacted by duly appointed representatives. What if school policy dictates khaki pants be worn and he wears jeans, would there be such an uproar because "he broke the law"? Be realistic. The only issue here is that we disagree with him, but that doesn't justify the level of response most of the commenters are displaying.

      Also, I'm not suggesting that we "get over this kid." I'm suggesting that we get over ourselves. Having a civil discourse over issues on which we disagree is one thing. Dragging a recently-graduated 18 year old through the mud because we disagree with him over the issue of deity is just stupid. We don't need to get over the kid. We need to get over ourselves.

      June 7, 2013 at 11:20 am |
    • Not Surprised

      RE: Religious kooks unite

      You need to give non-believers some credit. We're not babies, here. We can hear something and disagree with it without becoming immediately indoctrinated. I hate when people suggest that a belief is being force on me. I'm not an idiot. Neither are you. Merely listening to what someone has to say does not mean that I am being brainwashed.

      Sometimes I'm ashamed to be associated with you people. You call religious folks "sheep" or "nuts," and then behave the exact same way. This situation is a good example. The kid said something we've all heard before. Nothing new here. And now everyone's in a huge uproar about it. If he had said "I'm going to Yale" in his speech, does that mean that everyone listening will be forced to go to Yale? Of course not. Expressing a belief in deity doesn't force the listeners to share that belief, either.

      June 7, 2013 at 11:27 am |
  6. Jeff

    Umm, what is the heroic act here? He led his classmates in a prayer, was immediately well received, took no blowback from the school (as he was a graduate), and now is doing TV appearances? Heroism requires RISKING something. This kid risked nothing at all, just alienated every non-Christian in the room. Way to go, dude.

    June 7, 2013 at 10:50 am |
  7. ME II

    Two things:
    1) “I wanted to stand up for God,” he explained Wednesday. “This is what God wanted me to do.”

    Can God not stand up for Himself? What about "give unto Caesar..."? This was a school function, not a church.
    Now this kid is being flown to and interviewed by national networks, for what?

    2) “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.”

    Is turning a blind eye tantamount to endorsement?

    June 7, 2013 at 10:50 am |
    • Alias

      @MEII

      to answer you 2nd question;
      YES! TURNING A BLIND EYE IS ENDORSEMENT.
      Do you comprehend anything about how prejudice happens repeatedly.

      June 7, 2013 at 10:55 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Willfully ignoring = tacit approval.

      June 7, 2013 at 10:56 am |
    • Spoken

      Christians pray more than just "in church" he has the legal right to pray wherever he is, the problem is people are trying to say You Cannot pray because i dont want to hear it. well I dont like hearing cussing everywhere but guess what i dont have a right to go around saying you legally cannot cuss in front of me cause its offensive to me.

      June 7, 2013 at 10:57 am |
    • ME II

      @Alias, @Doc Vestibule,
      Agreed. It will become standard practice for the Valedictorian to scrap their prepared speech for a prayer unless the school does somethng.

      June 7, 2013 at 10:59 am |
    • JRNY

      I think a bigger concern here, at least for his parents, is that he KNEW what god wanted him to do...schizo anyone?

      June 7, 2013 at 11:00 am |
    • The real Tom

      Spoken, try to grow at least one more brain cell so you have a matching pair. This is NOT about the first amendment and the right to pray. This is about the separation of church and state. My taxes help pay for this kid's school. He does not have a right to lead a prayer in it. The SCOTUS was very clear about it; he violated the law.

      June 7, 2013 at 11:01 am |
    • ME II

      @Spoken,
      "Christians pray more than just "in church" he has the legal right to pray wherever he is, the problem is people are trying to say You Cannot pray because i dont want to hear it."

      Look, I submit that he, in fact, did not pray because he wanted to pray, but instead because he was making a political statement. I will never be able to "prove" that, which is why this kid won't be "punished", nor should he.
      However, I propose that what he did was inappropriate both as a student and as a Christian. Why sully God's name with secular invocations? You want to pray, then pray, but why let pride led you to make a public display of the act of praying?

      June 7, 2013 at 11:05 am |
    • ME II

      I don't think I was clear.

      I don't think he should be "punished" in any way for praying. Period.
      However, I think what he did was inappropriate.

      June 7, 2013 at 11:07 am |
  8. Jesus freaker

    He forgot to thank God for protecting the children by not allowing any deaths from school shootings during the school year.

    June 7, 2013 at 10:48 am |
  9. Lamb of dog

    I bet he made the town witch doctor proud.

    June 7, 2013 at 10:47 am |
  10. Michelle

    When are the ignorant Christian haters going to understand that a kid saying a prayer is NOT the governement choosing a religion to support and requiring others to join. Separation of church and state is not the same as no one can pray or espouse Christian (or whatever belief) outloud.

    June 7, 2013 at 10:46 am |
    • Jeff

      Read a few Supreme Court cases and you'll see how wrong you are, Michelle. This kid had every right to pray at graduation, with others or without. He did NOT have the right to do so from the school's podium as part of the graduation ceremony. Why is the chest-banging so necessary with Christians? If he wanted to pray on his special day, why not gather a group of people and do so after the ceremony?

      June 7, 2013 at 10:53 am |
    • The real Tom

      Michelle, you obviously don't have a clue as to what the separation of church and state entails and you are oblivious to the fact that a student may not lead a prayer, Christian or otherwise, at a public school event.

      June 7, 2013 at 10:56 am |
  11. Alias

    From the article – in case some of you didn;t bother to read it!
    "What he believes is that Liberty, a town with three stoplights and a population of 3,000, “fully supports prayer.”"

    The problem here is that this 18 yr old genious seems to think that what is popular in his small corner of the world is right for everyone, and he feel he has the right to impose it on anyone who dissagrees.
    After all, he thinks it is popular in his town of 3,000.

    June 7, 2013 at 10:46 am |
    • Spoken

      You do realize that you are forcing you removal of religion upon people right? you dont have to pray, but dont tell us we cannot. thats the problem, you are forcing your view on us.

      June 7, 2013 at 10:53 am |
    • Alias

      So, not allowing you to force your prayers onto me is now me forcing my views on to you?
      Ummm ... No.

      June 7, 2013 at 11:01 am |
    • paul copeland

      why is freedom of speech only offered to non-christian, racist organizations, pro-life supporters, & gay rights activists? seriously....he prayed the Lords prayer....oooooohhhhhhhh...isn't it sad when tolerance is only supported in one direction....isn't it sad he even had to be nervous before he made this bold move...it was the Lords Prayer....it isn't an angry prayer...it doesn't call anyone names...it doesn't exclude anyone....it doesn't hurt someones feelings...it doesn't disrespect anyone...I'm really sad where America is. If he had shown up in a dress Gaylor prob. would have been ok with that.

      June 7, 2013 at 11:02 am |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      Spoken: Not forcing removal of religion, it's forcing enforcement of the laws set out by SCOTUS,

      June 7, 2013 at 11:07 am |
  12. philipjbaker1952

    The only people that are offended by this are some atheists that need to control and speak for others because they can't handle people who believe in a God .Their name calling shows they don.t care about offending anyone .Their just a sad bunch of people who push for laws to silence those they disagree with . You get offended way to easy. I support the right of anyone to share their belief in a civil manner.

    June 7, 2013 at 10:46 am |
    • Alias

      I bet your opinion would change if he believes in jesus differently and expects you to burn in hell.

      June 7, 2013 at 10:50 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      @phillip
      It is the double standard that offends, sir.
      Why is this boy being lauded for ignoring school policy while Chelsey Ramer is being fined $1000 and denied her diploma for expressing her culture and beliefs (and in a must less intrusive way)?

      June 7, 2013 at 10:52 am |
    • susan

      You don't have to be a Christian to believe in God. There are way more people in the world who believe in a higher power than there are Christians.

      June 7, 2013 at 10:56 am |
    • albie

      so I am guessing you would have no problem with a Muslim going into one of their prayers at a graduation speech then?

      June 7, 2013 at 10:56 am |
    • PAllen

      I am an ordained Baptist minister, and I am offended by the lack of concern for non-Christians and their belief. This kid and his father may believe something is the truth, but that does not mean it is; it simply means they believe it.

      June 7, 2013 at 11:05 am |
    • cedar rapids

      sorry philip but you sound like a hater. that makes you hell bound according to the bible.

      June 7, 2013 at 11:13 am |
  13. jlsppw

    Nice job kid!

    June 7, 2013 at 10:44 am |
  14. Carlin123

    He's just a young brain washed kid.

    June 7, 2013 at 10:44 am |
    • Theocracy?

      I was just like him at 18, so I have hope for him seeing the light yet.

      June 7, 2013 at 10:53 am |
  15. lol??

    Socies won't even let him celebrate with a kegger. With the feds pushin' for .05 limits with driving to raise revenues, all the seniors should be prayin'. Lawyers need the dough more than the babies need food.

    June 7, 2013 at 10:44 am |
  16. Vic

    Let's see what Roy Costner has to say today @ 2:00 PM on CNN Newsroom.

    June 7, 2013 at 10:40 am |
    • The real Tom

      Why? He'll just as likely as not lie about his intent and reasoning.

      June 7, 2013 at 10:58 am |
  17. RedskinsFan

    I really don't see what the big deal is. He's a Christian, he wanted to pray, he had earned the right to speak by being valedictorian. Let him do it.

    I'm agnostic bordering heavily on the athiestic, but I also realize that most people are not. I have no right whatsoever to tell this boy he can't be religious, and if it offends you, tough. Part of being in a country where religious freedom and freedom to speak means that, from time to time, you have to listen to those that have a different view than you do.

    I do think he should have said something along the lines of "I would like to take a minute to do something for myself and several of my fellow students..", but what was done is done. Maybe he meant to make a statement, maybe he just wanted to pray for the strength to face life ahead. In the end, only he really knows his motivation. But I don't begrudge him his prayer anymore than I begrudge a Muslim turning east to pray to Mecca, a Jewish family offering a Sabbath Prayer, or an agnostic or atheist their questions or rational beliefs about the nature of a being that may or may not exist.

    June 7, 2013 at 10:40 am |
    • LeeAT

      Good for you. In a country with free speech, everyone should be allowed to speak freely, even if we don't agree with it. I don't have to agree with everything that is said, however; I agree with the right to say it. I also don't have to listen to it or read it, if I am offended by it.

      June 7, 2013 at 10:57 am |
    • The real Tom

      It isn't a matter of whether or not people were offended. It's a matter of law. It has been ruled unconstitutional for students to lead a prayer at a public school event.

      June 7, 2013 at 10:57 am |
    • ANCampbell

      Being an atheist myself, I want to say well said. I'm tolerable of other people's beliefs and ask/expect the same in return.

      June 7, 2013 at 11:13 am |
    • G to the T

      yes – we do know his motivation. He (and his father and the local clergy who encouraged him) disagreed with publicly lead prayer not being allowed in schools. That's why he said the Lord's prayer instead of just thanking god...

      June 10, 2013 at 4:25 pm |
  18. protected -by-first-amendment

    CNN is not posting again.

    Bad CNN.

    June 7, 2013 at 10:40 am |
  19. Riley

    Robert, I like the way you think. Keep it up and don't be intimated. I remember in school, we started each day with the Pledge of Allegiance. It had the words ONE NATION UNDER GOD. Not one nation under many Gods

    June 7, 2013 at 10:39 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      That Joe McCarthy was sure a swell fella, huh?

      June 7, 2013 at 10:40 am |
    • Theocracy?

      Original Pledge by Francis Bellamy 1892 "I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

      Just thought you should know. "Under God" wasn't added until 1948.

      June 7, 2013 at 10:42 am |
    • Ann

      My parents (WW2 generation) remembered starting each day with the pre-McCarthy pledge - "one nation, indivisible ..."

      Mom always said the new phrase sounded awkward and messed up the rhythm of the line.

      June 7, 2013 at 10:43 am |
    • FreeFromTheism

      and that's why it should be restored to the original version

      June 7, 2013 at 10:46 am |
    • Thoth

      "under God" was added. Just as evangelical lobbyists coerced politicians in 1950's to adopt "in God we Trust". It was accomplished by pitting the fear of 'evil' Russia as non-religious heathens vs the good god-fearing US Christians....

      The more you know....

      June 7, 2013 at 10:46 am |
    • JRNY

      Oh Riley, Riley, Riley. See, you said it yourself, the Pledge of Allegiance gives you the chance to feel all fuzzy, warm and god-icky, so why do you need illegal prayer in a school?

      June 7, 2013 at 10:47 am |
    • JRNY

      Riley, you still haven't answered my question about the gnats and camels you mentioned in an earlier post. As an animal activist, I'm very concerned about their well-being. Have you had your camel today Riley?

      June 7, 2013 at 10:48 am |
    • lol??

      How 'bout the Public Servants pledging to serve the Master-taxpayers faithfully?? Wouldn't that be a switcharoo?? Socies disguised as Christians don't work out either, 'specially flag sellers.

      June 7, 2013 at 10:48 am |
    • JRNY

      Riley, I just got the BEST idea girlfriend! Why don't you move to the Middle East? They LOVE the idea of ONE NATION UNDER GOD (allah, but hey, same stupid idea). I think you'd like it there. They have CAMELS! YAY! You get your own camel! Oh, and lots of gnats to swat at.

      June 7, 2013 at 10:50 am |
    • lol??

      JRNY, what is with you socies and always wantin' to make refugees?? Playin' God??

      June 7, 2013 at 11:01 am |
    • JRNY

      @lol..do you speak English? I don't understand anything you post...maybe if you actually write everything out or try English as your FIRST language, you'll be a teensy-bit easier to understand...

      June 7, 2013 at 11:06 am |
  20. Doc Vestibule

    I do so love how Roy Coster is a hero to Christians for disregarding school policy, but Chelsey Ramer is a disrespectful rabble rouser who should be punished.
    Would she face the same reprecussions if she donned a crucifix or a rosary?

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/03/chelsey-ramer-indian-feather-high-school-graduation_n_3380961.html?ir=Religion

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

      Doc, you speak as if Christians were rational. They are not.

      June 7, 2013 at 10:38 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.