Courageous Speech

He didn't think he would give a speech.  For quite some time, Roy Costner IV was second among his classmates, and didn't realize an extra class raised his grade point average enough for him to be the valedictorian of Liberty High School's Class of 2013.  But when the honor was bestowed on him, and he was asked to give the traditional valedictory speech, Costner didn't want to waste this opportunity to acknowledge the most important influence in his life: his Christian faith.   

There was a problem.  Liberty High School is a small public school in Pickens County, South Carolina, and the County's Board of Education had been targeted over the past year by activist atheists from Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) for praying at their meetings.  The (legally void) threats from FFRF had their intended effect, and the school board voted to suspend traditional prayer at their gatherings.  For good measure, the board also decided to eliminate religious references at graduation.

In accordance with this new rule, school officials instructed Costner to exclude any mention of faith from his planned speech.  And to be assured of compliance, they even asked Costner to turn in his speech ahead of time for administrative review and approval. 

In their zeal to appease the atheist group, the school district grossly overstepped and infringed on Costner's First Amendment rights.  Costner maintains a right to free speech that remains fully intact on school property, and even in graduation ceremonies.  With speeches set aside to recognize and thank those who have contributed to the lives of the speakers, it is proper and natural that students would talk about their faith communities and deeply-held beliefs.

It is in this context that Costner came to the podium to speak to the senior class, faculty, parents and others attending this year's graduation at Liberty High School.  The first thing he did was tear up the paper containing the speech approved by the school system.  Next, Costner spoke of how humble he was to have the honor, recognizing various classmates who seemingly contributed more to the school.   When his remarks turned to those who had helped him along the way, he gave thanks to his church and his parents for leading him to Jesus Christ.  Costner then directly acknowledged his Lord and Savior, praying the Lord's Prayer in the middle of his speech.

Costner later clarified his moment of conviction in an interview with The Christian Post, "I want to emphasize that everyone should be free to say what they want. Just because I prayed to my God doesn't mean that someone else isn't allowed to pray to who they want or say what they believe. We should all have free speech."

This brave stand has resonated with many Americans, as evidenced by 600,000 views on YouTube and coverage by major media outlets like CNN.

Suppressing convictions of Americans because they happen to be religious in nature is unconstitutional and just plain wrong.  The censorship betrays our roots as a nation.  For the liberty to believe and express one's beliefs is a freedom to which countless men have fought and died. Perhaps Costner's courageous speech will help remind us of who we are.

Nate Kellum is the Chief Counsel at the Center for Religious Expression, a non-profit organization based in Memphis.

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