home
RSS
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. A wise valedictorian Prays!

    "Faith in a prayer-hearing God will make a prayer-loving Christian." Andrew Murray

    June 6, 2013 at 6:48 pm |
    • Athy

      Unfortunately, that's probably true.

      June 6, 2013 at 6:50 pm |
    • NESTLE FOUNDATION OF OVALT INE

      Andrew Murray – didn't he write that song, "Snowbird"?

      June 6, 2013 at 6:52 pm |
    • One one

      Now when you folks pray, you need to git down on ya knees and fold your hands in the proper position. You see, it works a whole lot better when you do it that way. And if its really important, you might try holding your hands up in the air, and starts a crying, and a whaling . It works even better when you do it that way.

      June 6, 2013 at 7:03 pm |
  2. A wise valedictorian Prays!

    “The one concern of the devil is to keep Christians from praying. He fears nothing from prayerless studies, prayerless work and prayerless religion.
    He laughs at our toil, mocks at our wisdom, but he trembles when we pray.” Samuel Chadwick

    June 6, 2013 at 6:47 pm |
    • Smarter than your average bear

      Samuel Chadwick is an idiot.

      June 6, 2013 at 6:49 pm |
  3. A wise valedictorian Prays!

    "He who has learned to pray has learned the greatest secret of a holy and happy life." William Law

    June 6, 2013 at 6:46 pm |
    • Athy

      You mean I have to take prayer lessons to do it right?

      June 6, 2013 at 6:49 pm |
    • ISLAM FOUNDATION OF AMERICAN CONSTI TUTION

      hindu atheist, ignorant nut head will pray to a hindu crook powerful man without any problem, to have their hindu soul, filthy desire pleased, but have problem, if some one prays to GOD, the real giver in life. way of hindu atheists, ignorant nut heads, self centered, man kind to please their hindu soul, filthy desire.

      June 6, 2013 at 6:51 pm |
    • HINDU FOUNDATION OF AMERICAN CONSTlTUTION

      islam atheist, ignorant nut head will pray to a muslim crook powerful man without any problem, to have their muslim soul, filthy desire pleased, but have problem, if some one prays to GOD, the real giver in life. way of muslim atheists, ignorant nut heads, self centered, man kind to please their muslim soul, filthy desire.

      June 6, 2013 at 6:53 pm |
    • One one

      Now when you folks pray, you need to git down on ya knees and fold your hands in the proper position. You see, it works a whole lot better when you do it that way. And if its really important, you might try holding your hands up in the air, and starts a crying, and a whaling . It works even better when you do it that way.

      June 6, 2013 at 6:58 pm |
  4. chilliepepper

    People shouldn't be so upset about his speech. He earned it. He talked about what makes him go. What's the big deal. I love FREE SPEECH! Along as it's not outrageous like talking about killing people or filled with four letter words etc.You got to have some guidelines. Liberals love free speech as long as it fits into their Ideology. The hard left youth that shouts down speakers at podiums at their Colleges is not Kosher in my opinion. Exchange of Ideas a back and forth is what should happen IMO.

    June 6, 2013 at 6:45 pm |
    • Valedictorian

      That's right, FREE SPEECH is OKAY unless it has some fucking profanity in it.

      June 6, 2013 at 7:01 pm |
  5. A wise valedictorian Prays!

    “God shapes the world by prayer. The more prayer there is in the world the better the world will be, the mightier the forces of against evil …” E.M. Bounds

    June 6, 2013 at 6:45 pm |
    • Athy

      Prayer does absolutely nothing as demonstrated many times in controlled studies.

      June 6, 2013 at 6:48 pm |
  6. ISLAM FOUNDATION OF AMERICAN CONSTI TUTION

    Atheism , is otherwise known as nut ism, self center ism, or hinduism, denial of truth absolute GOD, not the way of civil human, but of nut heads, secular s, self centered, also known as criminals by definition. Not just pray to GOD, but struggle to live by truth absolute in life is one of the requirement to be human, followers of hindu nut ism, ignorant atheism, self center ism, man kind, may have problem with it, but human need not to care about them.

    June 6, 2013 at 6:44 pm |
    • HINDU FOUNDATION OF AMERICAN CONSTlTUTION

      Atheism , is otherwise known as nut ism, self center ism, or islamism, denial of truth absolute GOD, not the way of civil human, but of nut heads, secular s, self centered, also known as criminals by definition. Not just pray to GOD, but struggle to live by truth absolute in life is one of the requirement to be human, followers of islam nut ism, ignorant atheism, self center ism, man kind, may have problem with it, but human need not to care about them.

      June 6, 2013 at 6:45 pm |
    • Charlie828

      Believing in god or allah, is a sure sigh of a mental health problem.

      June 6, 2013 at 6:49 pm |
  7. Susy

    What a courageous witness from this young graduate! All the "haters" out there can just exercise a little tolerance for the beliefs of others.

    June 6, 2013 at 6:42 pm |
    • My faith is not your faith

      We would be more than willing to be tolerant of your faith if you Christians wouldn't spend so much time shoving your faith down our throats. Leave us of other faiths, and leave us atheists alone!

      June 6, 2013 at 6:46 pm |
    • Ken Margo

      Courageous is a bit strong. It's not like he was in middle east. What would you expect someone to do if they didn't like what he said.

      June 6, 2013 at 6:46 pm |
    • K. Sighn

      And likewise, if you choose to be part of the atheist cult keep it to yourself and quit shoving it down our throats. You seek out religious topics on the internet just to tell christians the same thing. Stay off those topics if you don't want to hear it.

      June 6, 2013 at 6:54 pm |
    • What IF

      I imagine, what with him being valedictorian and all, he certainly might have known enough to research if there would be any dire consequences for his stunt.

      And, yeah, this was South Carolina, for cryin' out loud - nearly zero chance of even having a cotton boll tossed at him!

      June 6, 2013 at 6:58 pm |
    • NamedScreen

      First of all, I don't think anyone is shoving religion down your throat. If you're talking about hearing about it in general. Well, darling, there are many different things in this world that you will have to hear about even if you don't want to. Are you on a crusade to stop people from mentioning everything you are tired of hearing about. Frankly, I am tired of hearing about Lindsay Lohan, Sarah Palin, American Idol judges but I can't totally stop it. And it's not killing me either when I have to. Be an adult. Stop complaining.

      June 6, 2013 at 7:00 pm |
    • Valedictorian

      Super courageous!! I mean it's not like this is a country that has heard of Christianity before...it's not like Christians go door to door or have whole TV channels to themselves...it's not like we advertise or anything!! We need to get THE WORD out because there's NO WAY people are TIRED as hell of hearing this same crap over and over!! You can NEVER blather on long enough about THE LORD!

      June 6, 2013 at 7:06 pm |
  8. My name is mud

    Religion is a cult. Seperation of church and state needs to be enforced. brainwashed sheep...

    June 6, 2013 at 6:39 pm |
    • speak for yourself

      And you haven't been influenced by other wordly cults?

      June 6, 2013 at 6:50 pm |
  9. NamedScreen

    Any parent in attendance who is "upset" should instead blame their kid. They had to hear it because their kid wasn't the valedictorian. He was.

    June 6, 2013 at 6:38 pm |
  10. Signs of the Times

    Top Ten Signs You Are a Fundamentalist Christian.
    10. You vigorously deny thousands of gods claimed by other religions, but feel outraged when someone denies yours.
    9. You feel insulted and “dehumanized” when scientists say that people evolved from other life forms, but you have no problem with the biblical claim that we were created from dirt.
    8. You laugh at ploytheists, but you have no problem believing in a triune god.
    7. Your face turns purple when you hear of the “atrocities” attributed to Allah, but you don’t even flinch when hearing about how God Jehovah slaughtered all the babies of Egypt in “Exodus” and ordered the elimination of entire ethnic groups in Joshua including women, children and trees.
    6. You laugh at Hindu beliefs that deify humans and Greek claims about gods sleeping with women, but you have no problem believing that the Holy Spirit impregnated Mary, who then gave birth to a man-god who got killed, came back to life and then ascended into the sky.
    5. You are willing to spend your life looking for little loopholes in the scientifically established age of Earth (about 5 billion years), but you find nothing wrong with believing dates recorded by Bronze Age tribesmen sitting in their tents and guessing that Earth is a few generations old.
    4. You believe that the entire population of this planet, with the exception of those who share your beliefs, though excluding those in all rival sects, will spend eternity in an infinite hell of suffering, and yet consider your religion to be the most “tolerant” and “loving”.
    3. While modern science, history, geology and physics have failed to convince you otherwise, some idiot rolling on the floor, speaking in “tongues” may be all the evidence you need to “prove” Christianity.
    2. You define 0.01 as a high success rate when it comes to answered prayers. You consider that to be evidence that prayer works, and you think that the remaining 99.99 failure rate was simply the will of God.
    1. You may actually know a lot less than many atheists and agnostics do about the bible, Christianity and church history, but still call yourself a Christian.

    June 6, 2013 at 6:35 pm |
    • Ken Margo

      not bad

      June 6, 2013 at 6:43 pm |
    • yew should join our prayer group

      That don't make no sense. We'd like to have yew join our prayer group at the Universal Prosperity Tabernacle of Patriotic Christians. We don't do no thinkin' stuff...jest hatin' fer jeeeezus by ignoring the rights of others to not have to hear our dogma in public places. I just love my gawwwwwwwwwwd. Go team jeeeeezus. Oh... and we act like sneak-weasels to tell our congregation how to vote... so you can deny doin' it yew see... cuz as jeeeezus himself taught: it ain't cheatin' if yew don't git caught. We take the law into our own hands here in SC.

      June 6, 2013 at 6:49 pm |
    • Charlie828

      Excellent post.

      June 6, 2013 at 6:53 pm |
    • Valedictorian

      I love all of these and no one is a True Christian unless they do these things.

      June 6, 2013 at 7:07 pm |
  11. Jan

    Idiot! They should pull his diploma. Where's lightening when it's needed???????

    June 6, 2013 at 6:35 pm |
    • Jim

      Be careful what you wish for, it might happen to instead.

      June 6, 2013 at 6:39 pm |
    • .

      Whoever instead is.

      June 6, 2013 at 6:41 pm |
    • Valedictorian

      I thought it was light enough there?? Maybe God could have called him home with some lightning.

      June 6, 2013 at 7:08 pm |
  12. Lars

    I find what this young man to do as disrespectful to anyone that did not share his beliefs. As a life long atheist I do not see it as my responsibility to change anyone or force my beliefs onto anyone else. I find comfort and joy in my understanding of the universe in much the same way that anyone else finds in religion. I do not hate religious people, but will admit to finding them strange and illogical. They should be able to believe what they want as long as; I am free to believe what I want, they don't expect or receive special rights by my government, don't use government to enforce their specific beliefs, and don't waste tax payer money at publicly funded events like this. I know a lot of other atheists that feel responsible for changing people's minds and I don't agree with that. Can't we all be tolerant of one another? Believe whatever you want – I'll be respectful of you as long as you respect me. While I strongly believe in separation of church and State – I do not want religion to be outlawed or destroyed. There is a time and a place. Looking to government for moral validation is pointless if God is who you're trying to please.

    June 6, 2013 at 6:35 pm |
    • One one

      The problem is, believers don't respect non-believers. They believe (and agree) that the god they worship sends them to hell for eternal torture. That's not respectful.

      June 6, 2013 at 6:45 pm |
    • Valedictorian

      Believers should NOT respect non believers because they have been given THE TRUTH but deny it and deny GOD. The Bible tells us to watch out for non believers.

      June 6, 2013 at 7:09 pm |
  13. Rusty Yates

    Nothing like forcing your beliefs on a captive audience even if it is only a few.

    June 6, 2013 at 6:35 pm |
  14. Jason

    This is an amazing story. Wouldn't it be great if the roughly 80% of Americans who identify as Christians stopped letting themselves get pushed around by the less than 2% of the population that are atheists? Can't we send them to North Korea or something?

    June 6, 2013 at 6:34 pm |
    • Lars

      Hmm – can you give some examples where Christians are pushing Christians around? Have you ever been asked to stop believing in your God? Has anyone ever tried to pass a law to outlaw your beliefs? What I see are some minorities that are asking for the same respect and protection you've been given for centuries and (as usual) the church doesn't want to share.

      June 6, 2013 at 6:39 pm |
    • I Am God

      Lars is right. Which state in this country actually BANS Atheists from ever taking a position with the state government? Hint: It's in the South.

      June 6, 2013 at 6:40 pm |
    • FelixCat

      No. You can't.

      June 6, 2013 at 6:41 pm |
    • My name is mud

      Religion is a joke. The 2% seem to understand reality and the other 80% are irrational thinkers...

      June 6, 2013 at 6:43 pm |
    • One one

      Your stats are misleading. For under 30 yo, 30% identify themselves as having no religion.

      June 6, 2013 at 6:49 pm |
    • Denker

      Interesting...the one with the voluntary intellectual confinement wants to send the ones that don't agree with that confinement to a country with a very confined ideology. Jason, you will have a much better time in North Korea than any atheist ever could. So go ahead...

      June 6, 2013 at 6:53 pm |
  15. mark

    Yet another christian forcing his beliefs down our throats.
    And they wonder why they're hated so much.

    June 6, 2013 at 6:34 pm |
    • Jason

      Mark, you need to do some research. about 80% of Americans identify themselves as Christians. Less than 2% identify themselves as Atheists. I really don't think the 80% needs to be concerned about a fraction of the less than 2% of atheists who are hate mongers.

      June 6, 2013 at 6:37 pm |
    • Lars

      Jason – for someone who isn't "concerned" with atheists you sure are posting a lot here.

      June 6, 2013 at 6:42 pm |
    • are122

      Maybe if he knew you were there he wouldn't have said it.

      June 6, 2013 at 6:43 pm |
    • Big Bob

      Most people, in this day and age, just want to be able to hang with the "cool kids" and they keep their beliefs to themselves.
      I'm not religious myself, but I do know the positive aspects that it brought to western culture. This young man spoke kind, thoughtful prayers that only lasted a few moments. It hurts no one but the perpetually angry. You know who you are.
      Peace!

      June 6, 2013 at 6:59 pm |
  16. are122

    Good for you Roy Costner!!!

    June 6, 2013 at 6:34 pm |
  17. Hey, Zeus

    Rational thought neglect has no place in school.

    June 6, 2013 at 6:33 pm |
  18. One one

    How would christians feel about equal time ? Namely, there would be an atheist message for every Christian message public ally displayed.

    June 6, 2013 at 6:33 pm |
    • Valedictorian

      The only 'equal time' God will allow the atheists is in the lake of fire! God's word is the ONLY true Word.

      June 6, 2013 at 6:42 pm |
    • I Am God

      Valedictorian there is a difference between "God's word" and your word. You claim others are sinners, yet you are actually the sinner here in the eyes of your so-called God.

      June 6, 2013 at 6:44 pm |
    • sam

      V. is the worst poe I've ever seen in here, hands down.

      June 6, 2013 at 6:48 pm |
    • Valedictorian

      John 1:1-2 – In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

      June 6, 2013 at 6:50 pm |
  19. Beth

    Students are allowed expression of faith in school. End of.

    June 6, 2013 at 6:32 pm |
    • Valedictorian

      Exactly! Hijacking a ceremony by grandstanding about my faith is the right of every Christian!

      June 6, 2013 at 6:37 pm |
    • so you say

      So yer fundamentalist mommy and daddy would just be all warm and fuzzy if Dr. Voodoo from Haiti gave a parting speech at next years graduation? I'm going to invite him, soon as I hear back from you. Oh... the kids are gonna love it. He teaches a message that involves medicinal herbs. There's a big ole world outside yer town limits. You might like it. Prob'ly not.

      June 6, 2013 at 8:54 pm |
  20. God is a Mormon

    I wonder what the religious right would have done if Mitt Romney had won and started hinting that he was going to enforce Mormonism on us all. The religious right think Mormonism is the enemy.

    June 6, 2013 at 6:31 pm |
    • Valedictorian

      Mormons are not real Christians, so it doesn't matter!

      June 6, 2013 at 6:36 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48
Advertisement
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.