Valedictorian Prays at Graduation

May a high-school student pray at a public-school graduation?  No, at least not according to the US Supreme Court. 

But CAN a student do it?  Sure.  This week, valedictorian Roy Costner IV dramatically tore up his pre-approved speech and recited the Lord’s Prayer instead. 

As reported by a local TV station, the school district in Liberty, South Carolina had been feeling pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union to hew closer to the Constitutional line in the town’s attitude toward public religion.  They had warned Costner to keep his valedictory speech secular.  But Costner decided to flout their warnings.  According to Christian News, Costner recited his prayer as a protest against the school district’s recent decision to ban prayer at other official events. 

Many of the townspeople approved.  By the end of his prayer, the crowd’s cheers had grown loud enough to drown out Costner.  A few people interviewed by the local TV station also supported Costner’s decision.  “It was pretty impressive,” local man Brian Hoover noted.  “I thought the guy had a lot of nerve.”

Another local man agreed.  Logan Gibson told the reporter, “I think it took a lot of courage to do that and people were proud that he stood up for what he believed in.”

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  1. Tracy

     /  June 6, 2013

    I have no problem with anyone praying (I’m a catholic, I pray) however, to say this kid has courage, is stretching.

    • Tracy, I agree this sort of public-funding prayer is not acceptable. And I don’t pray. But to allow me to play devil’s (angel’s?) advocate for a moment, isn’t it courageous for this teenager to flout the rules of his school administrators to support his religious beliefs? I don’t think it is a good thing to do, but I do think it took guts. He could have gotten in trouble; he could have had his diploma revoked…who knows? If he knew in advance the whole town was going to cheer, maybe not so much, but could he really know that 100% for sure in advance?

  2. I was under the impression that as long as it comes from the student and not sponsored (right word?) then it is ok.

    • @Sanford, My understanding of Santa Fe ISD v. Doe (2000) is that student-led and student-initiated prayers are still unconstitutional if they take place under the rubric of an official school event. So, a student or group of students could constitutionally have a prayer group of their own. But that group could not be allowed to make a prayer to start off a school event, such as a football game or graduation. This is why I think the Kountze cheerleaders are on such thin constitutional ice.

  3. This seems to turn a prayer into a protest, which flies in the face of Mt 6:5. We should pray to communicate with God, not to send a message to our fellow humans. If I thought this was intended as a genuine act of prayer, i would probably feel different, although even then I would be uncomfortable since graduations are typically mandatory events. Mr. Costner forced his fellow students who weren’t Christians to sit through a prayer in lieu of a speech that was supposed to represent their class, along with the applause signifying that this kind of behavior was acceptable. That doesn’t seem particularly in line with the Christianity we see in the Gospels and Paul’s letters, IMO.

    • @Marta, Interesting point. From a Christian perspective, prayer shouldn’t be protest, then. But from a CONSTITUTIONAL perspective, (almost) any protest speech has to be protected. So if this is categorized as protest rather than as prayer, I wonder if it has a different constitutional AND theological category. Good for the former, bad for the latter?


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