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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. name

    typical christian. always have to push their beliefs on others in any way possible.

    June 6, 2013 at 7:08 pm |
    • meche

      Good for him. I am tired of non believers trying to take our rights away also.

      June 6, 2013 at 7:16 pm |
    • responder

      Typical Atheist, gotta spew your vile lib hate everywhere you go.

      June 6, 2013 at 7:16 pm |
    • Valedictorian

      The only rights that are important are the ones God gave Christians. When you tell us to get along with others in society and be respectful, that is TAKING away our RIGHTS.

      June 6, 2013 at 7:18 pm |
    • The real Tom

      meche, what "rights" has anyone "taken away" from you, you moronic twit? Why should you be permitted to promote YOUR beliefs in a venue that EVERYONE pays for?

      June 7, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
  2. chiz3914

    Religion is the primary source of hatred in the world.

    June 6, 2013 at 7:06 pm |
    • Water_On_Mars

      It took only 30 seconds and is protected by the 1st Amendment.

      No big deal.

      I've heard of people doing a lot worst things.

      June 6, 2013 at 7:08 pm |
    • Athy

      Maybe it took only 32 seconds, but he violated the separation of church and state. Is that concept a little too complex for you, Water?

      June 6, 2013 at 7:11 pm |
    • Water_On_Mars

      Oh no.

      But what about free speech? And why can't he thank his family for leading him to the Lord?

      And what exactly in the Lord's Prayer is so offensive that you believe that the government has to ban people from saying those words in public?

      June 6, 2013 at 7:18 pm |
    • Ghia

      Most wars are over religion, land or water. You are correct. I don't understand the posters commenting on the 1st amendment. I was not aware that it said it is ok for a student to say "screw the rules I agreed to, I want to do something different".

      June 6, 2013 at 7:18 pm |
    • Water_On_Mars

      Rosa Parks said 'screw the rules' and sat in the front of the bus.

      June 6, 2013 at 7:23 pm |
    • Water_On_Mars

      “God has always given me the strength to say what is right... I had the strength of God and my ancestors with me”

      – Rosa Parks

      June 6, 2013 at 7:24 pm |
    • Divdar

      No such thing as separation of church and state. That is propaganda made up to suppress the views of those who you don't agree with. For example, those who use Bible terms to support gay marriage or raise taxes to support welfare programs never face the separation of church and state argument from the left. They aren't sued by Freedom From Religion or other such groups. Hypocritical to say you can exercise your beliefs, regardless of what they are based on, and others can't.

      His speech certainly wasn't forcing anyone to believe anything, anyway.

      June 6, 2013 at 7:27 pm |
    • Valedictorian

      "For example, those who use Bible terms to support gay marriage or raise taxes to support welfare programs never face the separation of church and state argument from the left."

      That NEVER happens. The Bible is very clear about gays. Do NOT bear false witness for GOD can see you.

      Proverbs 19:5 | A false witness shall not be unpunished, and he that speaketh lies shall not escape.

      June 6, 2013 at 7:30 pm |
  3. SNAPPA

    What a shame, someone who is suppose to be intelligent could do something so ignorant. Sad state of affairs when a young person who still believes in that nonsense would steal the graduation from others.

    June 6, 2013 at 7:04 pm |
    • Athy

      It definitely is a shame. And this ignoramus needs to know it.

      June 6, 2013 at 7:06 pm |
    • Armor Shield

      What the true shame is is what comes out of the mouth of Heathens and Infidels! That is nothing to feel proud of, believe me. But then again it so appears that the only thing they're ashamed of is to be able to admit that they are wrong and that God created them too. Here's to your opening your mind to think clearly once in a while folks and not continue being in such denial.

      June 7, 2013 at 11:27 am |
  4. name

    People need to leave their religion out of events like graduation in general. A football player crosses himself after scoring, fine. A woman thanks god for letting her live after a tornado decimates her town, fine. But down push your religion on me because you have some misplaced belief that god is trying to ask you to "spread his word." I'm graduating from high school or college and I want to have a ceremony and celebration of that. I don't care if god stood right in front of your face and told you to do it. Keep your beliefs out of my face.

    George Carlin said something very enlightening during one of his jokes. Religion is like shoe lifts. They make you feel good, you feel taller, and you feel better about yourself because of them and I accept that. Just don't ask me to wear your shoes.

    June 6, 2013 at 7:04 pm |
    • meche

      separation of church and state is also taking our freedom of speech away. i don't speak about God to shove it down peoples throat I am just showing my love for him and praising him outwardly. I am sorry that it offends people but god has been too good to me to not share it.

      June 6, 2013 at 7:25 pm |
    • The real Tom

      Oh, bushwa. Knock off the hysteria, Petunia. Do you need some smelling salts and a fainting couch? You can speak about god all you want, but you can't do it on MY DIME.

      June 7, 2013 at 11:59 am |
  5. Big Bob

    Oh! And by the way. Obama's on-line birth certificate is a blatant forgery!

    June 6, 2013 at 7:01 pm |
    • I Am God

      Another birther nut? You people need to get a life.

      June 6, 2013 at 7:03 pm |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      Oh my, someone who 'thinks' Obama is faking it. What exactly does that have to do with some brainwashed little dolt invoking prayer in to a public university grad?

      June 6, 2013 at 7:03 pm |
    • Ken Margo

      The election is over. Your guy lost. Please get over it and move on.

      June 6, 2013 at 7:21 pm |
  6. Phillipe

    In a speech made in 1863, Abraham Lincoln said, "We have been the receipients of the choicest bounties of heaven; we have been preserved these many years in peace and prospertiy; we have grown in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us."

    June 6, 2013 at 7:01 pm |
    • One Nation under God

      Amen!

      June 6, 2013 at 7:01 pm |
    • I Am God

      We are God's children right? Well eventually children must grow up. I think it is time for you to grow up.

      June 6, 2013 at 7:04 pm |
    • evolvedDNA

      Phillipe.. so what? Thor gets mentioned daily but no proof.

      June 6, 2013 at 7:11 pm |
    • cole

      not sure if you know this but at the time they were involved in a civil war because slavery was still legal. sooooooooooo not everything the United States did at the time was exactly fair to everyone.

      June 6, 2013 at 7:18 pm |
    • Pete

      And then he led one army of almost all Christians against another army of almost all Christians in one of the bloodiest conflicts in modern warfare. Where's your "Amen" to that, eh?

      June 6, 2013 at 7:20 pm |
  7. NYVeteran

    Most of the guys god talks to usually have a bloody knife in their hands. I suppose in that respect this is better. Buts its nonetheless wrong. IF a Muslim had done the same to Allah would SC be cheering? If an atheist thanks his lack of religion would that be ok? If a GOP tea bagger kook from Delaware thanked the witches and goblins would that be ok? In deference to all you respect the rules. Poor choice of valedictorian. He missed the point of his education.

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

      Not most, but a few. The problem is where do you draw the line from just hearing God and being a good Christian to being a complete loon?

      June 6, 2013 at 7:22 pm |
  8. Ricke1949

    When the state tells us to be quiet, we are able to speak out according to Acts 4.

    June 6, 2013 at 7:00 pm |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      Good thing the buybull is not the rule book for your country or you might have had a point.

      June 6, 2013 at 7:04 pm |
    • Valedictorian

      The only true LAW is God's Word.

      June 6, 2013 at 7:14 pm |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      Valedictorian: So does that mean you don't obey the laws set out by the government?

      June 6, 2013 at 7:18 pm |
    • Valedictorian

      The only true GOVERNMENT is the GOVERNING given to us by God's Word.

      June 6, 2013 at 7:19 pm |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      Valedictorin: Wow, you need to locate the nearest asylum and request help for those delusions...you're clearly not mentally stable enough to exist in society without supervision or medication.

      June 6, 2013 at 7:23 pm |
    • Pete

      Acts 4 is not part of the criminal code, so face the consequences if you break the law of the land. Perhaps this school should lose it's right to have student speakers is they can't control them?

      June 6, 2013 at 7:24 pm |
  9. Secular Humanist from Ohio

    Once again, actions based on religion get a free pass. How dare we judge someone's actions if they're based on religion.

    June 6, 2013 at 7:00 pm |
  10. steve

    So the president says " Our prayers are with you " when children are killed
    He must rule over everything but the schools. -weird.

    June 6, 2013 at 6:59 pm |
  11. JFCanton

    Why should he have any less right to force this on his captive audience than anything else he might say? His speech was going to be appealing to *some* shared experience that not everyone in his audience shared. If you hated football and he wanted to talk about football and a large portion of the audience was all excited about his talking about football, you'd have to deal. There's a line not all that far from proselytizing beyond which religious talk is just someone's chosen way of expressing himself.

    June 6, 2013 at 6:59 pm |
    • Consider This

      Conversely, why should non-Believers have a right to censor what Christians say and believe in.

      June 7, 2013 at 11:34 am |
    • The real Tom

      They don't. The courts do. And they've ruled. Are you smart enough to read about the cases, or are you another moron?

      June 7, 2013 at 11:36 am |
  12. Charlie Rodriguez

    How incredibly rude of this young man to ignore the rules. I and my son are both nonreligious and do not like having to hear prayers and praises to god everywhere we go. He is attending a public school and the fact that he is a valedictorian means that he is capable of understanding what SECULAR means. People complain that we are taking god out of schools. This myth that is god should never have been there to begin with. He could have made his speech then returned to his seat and made his prayers there. He had no right to impose his beliefs on a captive audience. How would he have liked it if his principle had started chanting to Vishnu while addressing the crowd. His religious views are exactly that, HIS. Did he even stop to consider that he might be offending someone? Or did his ego not allow him to consider other peoples feelings? the sad bit in this is that so many consider him a hero for doing this when the reality is he is a small person with no respect for others.

    June 6, 2013 at 6:57 pm |
    • Athy

      Well said, Charlie. My sentiments exactly.

      June 6, 2013 at 6:58 pm |
    • NJ Man

      First amendment gives us the right to free speach doesn't it?

      June 6, 2013 at 7:14 pm |
  13. mhklein

    Gaylor is wrong, Eby is right. People have a right to express their religious beliefs. The certainly have the legal right, and they have the moral right, too, as long as they are not aggressive or obnoxious about it. Those people who object to Costner's speech are being very closed minded.

    June 6, 2013 at 6:55 pm |
    • Athy

      The problem is that he violated the separation of church and state. Is that concept a little too complex for you, mhklein?

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

      I assume you then also support public schools being open on Christmas right – as well as all government agencies and run facilities? And all public companies for that matter?

      June 6, 2013 at 7:14 pm |
  14. To Roy Costner IV

    Congratulations!!!

    June 6, 2013 at 6:54 pm |
    • Roy Costner III

      I am his dad AND his grandad AND his 2nd cousin!! Top that!

      June 6, 2013 at 7:20 pm |
  15. derp

    What i dont understand is why the kid didnt get in trouble. At my high school we were givin policy and procedure for graduation and if we didnt follow it or did something we were specifically told not to we didnt get our diploma.

    June 6, 2013 at 6:54 pm |
  16. NamedScreen

    If he had mentioned what Buddhism or Hinduism had taught him and quoted a Buddhist or Hindu prayer nobody would have batted an eye! Actually, he would have probably been referred to as "enlightened" for a young man from a such small town. As such this graduation would have been just been one of the millions of graduations that happen every year and gone unnoticed by the media. The fact that he is Christian and said a Christian prayer puts everyone is up in arms. People will do anything and take any action out of context to get attention to their personal cause. "Brainwashed", "sheep" and other names non-religious people call religious people should really be directed at the anyone who let's the media hype them up.

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

      The problem isn't the type religion. They're all superstitions. The problem is that he violated the separation of church and state. Is that concept a little too complex for you, NamedScreen?

      June 6, 2013 at 6:56 pm |
  17. Demigod Vadik, CA

    One thing I have learned over my 36 years of life is that the Christian, Jewish and Muslim God is one of the same...

    ...and it is not God at all...but the DEVIL...

    June 6, 2013 at 6:51 pm |
    • The Difference

      That is where you have it very wrong, my friend. The Christian God is the only ONE who is able to bring Salvation unto mankind. No other "god" can do that just as no one other than Jesus Christ has died and then arisen again on the third day and remain for forty more days to speak to His followers. And it is only Jesus who can Command the devil to get behind Him and stay condemned as he is after being cast out of Heaven through his disobedience to God. Praise God! Praise Jesus!! All Glory Be To God!!!

      June 7, 2013 at 10:51 am |
    • Arthur Bryant

      Um, no. There is no devil. The Abrahamic god is the most successful con job in history, invented and perpetuated by those in power. It's about money, power and control. Simple as that. I'm sure that any minute now you'll have the foaming-at-the-mouth fudies telling you how you're going to burn for eternity for daring to say such a thing. I'm also sure they'll be coming in their pants thinking about you writhing in agony forever.

      June 8, 2013 at 4:17 pm |
  18. Frederick Rich

    Isn't it ironic that in a city named "Liberty" that there should even be an issue about this gifted, young man expressing his freedom of speech? In our Bill of Rights, we clearly see our rights and I've never read about any prohibitions on the expressing of one's faith in God. It is right to acknowledge the Lord at all times and places! I wonder what the naysayers will say when they meet God face to face. A hundred years from now, all the God-haters will wish they had embraced Him. I chose to recognize JESUS as Savior, Lord, and King of the Universe! There is no shame in lifting Him up!

    June 6, 2013 at 6:50 pm |
    • Valedictorian

      That's what I've been saying. There was nothing wrong with him hijacking a ceremony so he could yell about his faith. NOTHING. In fact, this should be mandatory.

      June 6, 2013 at 6:58 pm |
    • I Am God

      Valedictorian there is nothing wrong with what they guy did, but for it being mandatory I am going to have to say hell no.

      June 6, 2013 at 7:01 pm |
    • Observer

      Frederick Rich,

      Would you be speaking about freedom of speech and religion if the kid instead gave his list of "Reasons Why God is Dead"?

      Of course not. Skip the hypocrisy.

      June 6, 2013 at 7:13 pm |
    • Divine Truth

      Amen, Frederick Rich, Amen!! All of what you have said is Spot-On right! Heathens will not understand what you are saying as their sense of good reasoning has been shut down by their obedience to sin and that which is mundane. They will make war with God and Jesus but Scripture has known that already and has addressed it in this Scripture: "These shall make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb shall overcome them: for He is the LORD of Lords, and King of kings: and they that are with him are called, and chosen, and faithful." - REVELATION 17:14 (KJV)

      June 7, 2013 at 10:59 am |
  19. SP

    atheism is also a cult.. im sure there would not be an uproar from athiests he he spoke about there not being a God. i applaud him for sharing what was on his heart.

    June 6, 2013 at 6:50 pm |
    • Athy

      But there sure as hell would be an uproar from the religies.

      June 6, 2013 at 6:51 pm |
    • Demigod Vadik, CA

      I thought Jesus said pray in the closet...not in public...

      June 6, 2013 at 6:53 pm |
    • Arthur Bryant

      Yes, of course atheism is a cult, just like asantaism. Obviously you have to belong to a cult to disbelieve in Santa. Or the tooth fairy. Or the Easter Bunny.

      Idiot.

      June 8, 2013 at 4:19 pm |
  20. A wise valedictorian Prays!

    "Pray without ceasing." 1 Thessalonians 5:17

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

      You should only quote from the Bible, that is the only true Word. Stop quoting those other people.

      June 6, 2013 at 6:59 pm |
    • Observer

      More Christian HYPOCRISY. If someone is writing on the Internet, they aren't praying at the same time.

      June 6, 2013 at 7:17 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.