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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. What a magnificent way For a Christian!

    To show all the world how a true Christan will immediately stab anyone in the back if, he thinks god wishes it.

    June 7, 2013 at 9:55 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      They used to face lions and worse. Now they risk disapproval.

      June 7, 2013 at 9:57 pm |
  2. Secular Humanist from Ohio

    @Grafted Olive Branch

    Absolving yourself through the torture and death of another human being is reprehensible and false.

    June 7, 2013 at 9:43 pm |
  3. Bootyfunk

    "hey god, really cool of you to help me with my grades... but pretty horrible of you to let people get killed by those tornadoes. and could you just make kids bullet proof - seems simple for an all-powerful god."

    June 7, 2013 at 9:34 pm |
    • NavinJay

      If he was truly all powerful, he could speak for himself..oh wait..NO ONE HAS EVER SEEN HIM OR HAVE ANY SHRED OF EVIDENCE THAT HE EVEN EXISTS OR HAS EVER EXISTED.

      June 7, 2013 at 9:59 pm |
  4. NavinJay

    God needs some kid to stand up for him??? Wow..he must not be a very powerful god...

    June 7, 2013 at 9:10 pm |
    • diana horton

      sometimes, god uses people to remind other's that he is still around. this of course is only my thought. but everyone has their own beliefs and that is fine also.–peace

      June 7, 2013 at 9:45 pm |
    • Dippy

      Others, not other's. Did you sleep through sixth grade, diana?

      June 8, 2013 at 12:20 am |
  5. NavinJay

    But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. – Obviously this young man has no clue what the Bible says. I'm an atheist and I know what it says.

    June 7, 2013 at 8:51 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      surveys show that atheists, in general, have more biblical knowledge than christians. so sounds about right...

      June 7, 2013 at 9:35 pm |
  6. NavinJay

    Have a kid get up there and praise Allah and see if everyone agrees he can say what he wants...

    June 7, 2013 at 8:50 pm |
    • poopmeister

      If he did that, the crowd would think that he has a bomb and some redneck would shoot him....that's what would happen.

      June 7, 2013 at 9:15 pm |
  7. poopmeister

    Could someone please answer a question for me. Why the hell does so many people post verses? Can't you guys pick a quote from the Pope or someone at least living in the last century? Why is it always biblical stuff and not something a little more current, maybe even original thoughts.

    June 7, 2013 at 8:23 pm |
    • Athy

      Because most religies are so IQ challenged they would have trouble writing anything original. Most of them would have trouble just introducing themselves.

      June 7, 2013 at 8:52 pm |
    • poopmeister

      lionlylamb, I saw that same damn quote earlier! Talk about lack of originality. I understand worshipping God and all but I don't understand citing verses instead of having meaningful dialogue. I want to be convinced that your religion serves a purpose and verses only do it for believers of said religion. You have to pull in new people or your religion will fade away....talk like that and you end up scaring children.

      June 7, 2013 at 9:13 pm |
    • poopmeister

      Funny, I didn't feel like I was whining but I guess all non-believers sound whiny to you. I feel compassion, empathy, love...all of the valued feelings but I just don't happen to need a God to have those feelings and thoughts. Does that make me less of a person than you? I believe that if there is a heaven; when I get there I will be granted entrance because I am a good person regardless of my faith. Christians do not believe this concept and until I hear one acknowledge it, I will never take any of them serious enough. Good people are good people and deserve everything that they have earned.

      June 7, 2013 at 9:59 pm |
  8. Bob

    There are many Bobs.

    And what do they call a kid without...

    June 7, 2013 at 8:01 pm |
  9. Bostontola

    Given the extreme penalty associated with going to hell, shouldn't god be better as saving souls? Most people that have ever lived don't /didn't believe in the Judeo-Christian religions. If there is such a horrible consequence imposed by god, doesn't god have a responsibility to do better?

    June 7, 2013 at 7:42 pm |
    • Secular Humanist from Ohio

      God works in mysterious ways – sorry, too much sarcasm lately.

      June 7, 2013 at 7:45 pm |
    • ComeON

      Jesus Christ overcame death. He can save us after we die, too.

      Jesus Christ is in charge.

      Not Christians.

      Jesus Christ forgave the people that brought about his death.

      On the cross: "Forgive them Father, For they know not what they do."

      Why wouldn't he forgive an atheist who just wasn't able to believe?

      Or someone that never heard of him?

      June 7, 2013 at 8:12 pm |
    • Bostontola

      ComeON,
      So this life doesn't determine fate in the afterlife, great!

      June 7, 2013 at 8:22 pm |
    • Observer

      faith,

      Chill. Not all believers are Nazis and fascists like you insist.

      June 7, 2013 at 8:30 pm |
    • Bostontola

      faith,
      What percentage of people that have lived would you say believed in Christianity or Judaism?

      June 7, 2013 at 8:34 pm |
    • Bostontola

      Most means more than half, do you think more than half were/are Christians or Jews? Today, about a third of the people are Christian or Jewish.

      June 7, 2013 at 8:51 pm |
    • Observer

      faith

      "y lie? b truthful"

      When are you going to start yourself? Tell us more about Nazis and fascists instead.

      June 7, 2013 at 9:34 pm |
  10. Typical-Interner-Atheist

    LEVITICUS! LEVITICUS! LEVITICUS!

    June 7, 2013 at 7:16 pm |
    • Secular Humanist from Ohio

      Don't forget "The Bible is full of lies!"

      June 7, 2013 at 7:23 pm |
    • Observer

      Typical Internet Believer

      Pick-and-choose HYPOCRITE.

      June 7, 2013 at 8:13 pm |
  11. Typical-Interner-Atheist

    Stalin and Mao were not atheists. They were demigods of the religions Stalinism and Maoism. We know this because mass murder on such a scale can only be committed by religionists.

    June 7, 2013 at 7:14 pm |
    • Secular Humanist from Ohio

      And since atheists have no moral guidance they eat their babies.

      June 7, 2013 at 9:04 pm |
  12. Typical-Interner-Atheist

    The King James Version of the bible mentions unicorns. Therefore, ipso facto, quid pro quo, quod erat demonstrandum, the biblical writers believed in mythical one-horned horses!

    June 7, 2013 at 7:11 pm |
  13. Typical-Interner-Atheist

    Every atheist who claims to have been a devout Christian was.

    Every Christian who claims to have been an atheist, wasn't.

    June 7, 2013 at 7:09 pm |
    • Chuckles

      I am an atheist

      I have never, ever in my life for a single instant been a christian in any way shape or form.

      Oops, looks like you're post is just dumb.

      June 7, 2013 at 7:11 pm |
    • Pole dancing for Jesus

      can atheists proof read before they post

      June 7, 2013 at 7:12 pm |
    • Typical-Interner-Atheist AMENDED

      Every atheist who claims to have been a devout Christian/Jew was.

      June 7, 2013 at 7:18 pm |
    • AtheistSteve

      Chuckles

      If you never claimed to once being christian then this post doesn't apply to you. I was once a believer and for all the reasons most believers use. I was raised in a Catholic household. I was taught to believe by my parents, neighbors and church. Questions or doubts about the magical claims of religion were not resolved with any concrete answers beyond telling me I needed to have faith and simply accept what I was told.
      My shift to an atheist perspective was reached using critcal thinking, skepticism, logic and reason. I care about truth now and cannot in good conscience believe in anything that isn't supported by eviidence and reason. Thus what is posted here is essentially true. While I once was gullible enough to be fooled into believing things without evidence it would now require impossible, supernatural, physics defying evidence to make me shift back to theism. Short of that I would be incapable of reverting back.
      This is why anyone who claims to once being an atheist and then embracing theism was never an atheist for the right reasons. But for me once being a christian there is no doubt I was christian for all the right reasons. Blind acceptance on faith and indoctrination.

      June 7, 2013 at 8:43 pm |
    • EarthLodgeReligionSteve

      So, *YOUR* reasons are the *RIGHT* reasons? Just because you don't see the evidence, doesn't mean it is not there. There are people that say and feel the EXACT same way you do, but go the other way.

      June 7, 2013 at 9:06 pm |
    • Most.Arrogant.Statetement.of.the.Day

      "There is no doubt I was christian for all the right reasons."

      I was raised in a Catholic household. Strike 1!

      Blind acceptance on faith and indoctrination. Strike 2!

      What horrible church did your parents make you go to?

      June 7, 2013 at 9:11 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      EarthLodge, What evidence?

      June 7, 2013 at 9:39 pm |
  14. science

    Destiny & DNA......................World Science Festival

    http://new.livestream.com/accounts/4044190/events/2110223

    June 7, 2013 at 7:07 pm |
  15. ComeON

    Uh oh, somebody is mocking me.

    I'm flattered.

    June 7, 2013 at 7:01 pm |
  16. ISLAM FOUNDATION OF AMERICAN CONSTI TUTION

    Only by hindusim, absurdity of hindus, ignorant s, pretending to be educated, knowledgeable.

    June 7, 2013 at 6:54 pm |
  17. I'm sorry David, I can't let you do that.

    You can also mix cement in a pelican's beak. FACT!!

    June 7, 2013 at 6:52 pm |
  18. Of pants and skirts

    Mr. pagan Bob wears the skirt and Mrs. pagan Bob wears the pant

    June 7, 2013 at 6:50 pm |
  19. Why?

    Who wears the pants in your house?

    June 7, 2013 at 6:47 pm |
  20. ComeON

    In context, Paul is dealing with false deceived teachers who are teaching false doctrine (1 Tim. 1:3, 7)

    Paul did not leave Timothy behind in Ephesus to stop the false teachers AND to stop all women who are teaching correct biblical doctrine – he only left Timothy behind to stop the false teachers from teaching false doctrine (1 Tim. 1:3)

    *The More You Know*

    June 7, 2013 at 6:47 pm |
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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.