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A twist in the tale of the Christian valedictorian

June 10, 2013|By Michael McGough
  • A South Carolina high school student has become a poster boy for Christian conservatives after reciting the Lord's Prayer at his graduation instead of his prepared valedictorian speech.
A South Carolina high school student has become a poster boy for Christian… (Marcos Chin / For The Times…)

You’ve probably heard about the South Carolina high school valedictorian who tore up his prepared speech at graduation ceremonies and instead recited the Lord’s Prayer, to cheers and applause. But there is a twist in the tale of Roy Costner IV, who has become a poster boy for Christian conservatives.

In an interview with the Christian Post, Costner said that he had been warned by school officials to refrain from any prayers or religious references in his remarks.

“Let me first say that every person, regardless of their religious affiliation -- whether they are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, atheist, or any other belief -- should be allowed to say what they want because of the 1st Amendment,” Costner said. “I felt that my free speech was being encroached upon because I wasn't allowed to say what I wanted to say or acknowledge who I wanted to acknowledge.”

This is a plausible argument. In offering Costner the podium, Liberty High School was arguably creating a free-speech zone in which he could express his own views and thank those to whom he was grateful for his academic success, whether that happened to be Grandma or Jesus.

In a 1969 case involving students who wore black armbands to protest the Vietnam War, the Supreme Court said: “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” (That ruling was somewhat qualified in a 1986 case in which the court upheld the discipline of a student who included a lewd reference in a class election speech; but there’s no indecency problem with the Lord’s Prayer.)

But here’s the twist: Costner’s exercise of free speech is entwined with a dispute in the Pickens County School District about something that may violate another part of the 1st Amendment: official prayer at public meetings.

As a result of pressure from a secularist group, the school board ended its practice of beginning meetings with student-led Christian prayers and took other action, including replacing prayer at high school graduation ceremonies with a moment of silence. That bothered Costner.

“I am a strong Christian, and when I heard about our local school board getting attacked by the ACLU and Freedom From Religion Foundation, I realized it was outside groups pressuring our local officials," Costner told the Christian Post. “The complaints came from a Wisconsin organization, and the ACLU also tried to make things difficult, even though this was not a local problem and no one from our county had complained about public prayer."

Costner is a hero to supporters of school prayer not because he exercised his 1st Amendment free-speech rights but because he is a symbol of opposition to the separation of church and state that has been foisted on “Christian” communities by the ACLU and liberal judges.

Many social conservatives, who ordinarily reject the notion of children’s rights (other than a right to remain silent), become champions of student free speech when the “free speech” in question celebrates the dominant religion of the community. If Costner had recited from the Koran, I suspect there wouldn’t have been much applause.

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