Valedictorian Prays at Graduation

The valedictorian of Liberty High School in Liberty, South Carolina, Rob Costner IV, decided to strike a blow for Christian privilege by saying the Lord’s Prayer instead of the speech he had planned, in protest of the school not putting prayer officially into the ceremony. Here’s the video:


Now here’s the thing: I think what he did was legal. He was chosen to speak because he was the valedictorian, not because of the content of his speech, and he was speaking only for himself. I don’t think there’s an Establishment Clause violation there. But as always, I like to point out the obvious hypocrisy on the part of those Christians who applauded what he did. If a valedictorian had decided to instead give a Muslim prayer, that place would have erupted in anger and that kid would be lucky to get out of there alive. It’s only “religious freedom” when it’s their religion.

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  • iplon

    I actually think this generally is considered unconstitutional.

    Graduations are generally mandatory or near-mandatory events. So, naturally, many students are forced to sit through them. This means that when a person is given an official speaking position, they are in essence acting on behalf of the school.

    The school may not, however, force students to sit through a religious ceremony or prayer. The school isn’t allowed to hide behind a student’s free speech, since the student is speaking on behalf of the school.

    Imagine if the school brought a sex education expert in to do a talk on contraception and the speaker decided to open up with a religious prayer (unbelievable situation, I know).

    Again: while students do have a right to free speech, they don’t have a right to force other students to sit through listening to their religious prayers while the schools puts them up on a pedestal.

  • Alverant

    Are you sure he was speaking only for himself? Speakers are chosen by the school and as such speak, in some small part, for it.

  • jamesramsey

    There is also some truly great irony in this.

    This person is making a public display of praying The Lord’s Prayer.

    Here are the words from Jesus just (and I mean just) before the prayer.

    5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

    9 “This, then, is how you should pray:

  • In other news, the valedictorian of a local high school dedicated his speech to giving thanks for the fact that he is white, male, heterosexual, and born wealthy.

  • gshelley

    Did the school get to read over his speech first (or would it have if they hadn’t told him no religion)? It wouldn’t surprise me if they wanted veto power in case someone used it for things they didn’t like, and once they had that, were told that they couldn’t then allow the religious view.

  • abb3w

    @0, Ed Brayton:

    Now here’s the thing: I think what he did was legal. He was chosen to speak because he was the valedictorian, not because of the content of his speech, and he was speaking only for himself. I don’t think there’s an Establishment Clause violation there.

    Case law (Cole v Oroville, Corder v Lewis Palmer) seems to suggest otherwise, at least in the view of the Federal Courts; and it might have been a different matter if the school was not vetting such speeches beforehand.

    Of course, not vetting student speeches would have its own hazards….

  • Sally Stearns

    Uh oh, he said forgive us our trespasses, now all the Lutherans are pissed that he didn’t say forgive us our debts, and where’s the mentions of the times of trial!? The ELLC is going to have his head on a pike!

    I think some legislator should try to get the Lord’s Prayer passed as the official prayer of the nation and then we can have all the various sects fight it out – maybe that would click the light bulb in Americans’ heads.

  • John Pieret

    gshelley @ 5

    According to the report I saw, the school had decided not to have any prayers this year and sreened and approved the kid’s prepared speech. He told his family ahead of time what he planned to do, however. Once again these people prove their moral superiority by lying and cheating.

  • tbp1

    A very good response to this from a religious source:

    Sometimes they get it.

  • Sastra

    @ Gretchen #4:

    Yeah, I have the same reaction. A Christian? Whoa, dude, that’s really daring and … average. The norm. The status quo of the majority. How bold of you to step out of the mold and announce you’re going right back in the mold, where it’s safe and you blend in with everyone else around you, you hero you.

    I have less of a problem if a graduation speech gives credit to their strong religious faith or relationship with Jesus. After all, it’s fine for a valedictorian to talk about their personal life, their motives, their inspirations. Leading everyone in a religious ceremony is pushing it — and on several levels of meaning.

  • Well, I do think it’s important to respect the valedictorian’s speech – so even though he said something stupid and privileged, he should have been able to. I also support people’s right to criticize him for saying something stupid and privileged. The question remains how they would have reacted if he had read from the koran, instead, or shouted “<iPh’nglui Mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.”

    The lord’s prayer is degree of difficulty 1, while the cthonic chant is a solid 4.5

  • David C Brayton

    I am just trying to imagine what would’ve happened if had pulled out a prayer rug from under his gown, shouted Allah Ahkbar, knelt towards Mecca and started praying in supplication. I think Ed is right…he quite likely would have suffered serious bodily injury.

  • iplon

    I doubt he would have gotten the chance to be seriously wounded.

    I bet that the administration would have had the “courage” to immediately stop the student from abusing his position of power to force a sectarian religious prayer on everyone there.

  • beardedone

    School isn’t over ’till all the activities, including graduation, are over. A reprimand should be entered into his permanent record for violating policy as well as for insubordination. Allowing this to go unpunished sets a horrible precedent going forward.

  • kermit.

    Compassionately he disregards other beliefs, some held by other students.

    Respectfully, he dismisses the Constitution.

    And bravely, Sir Robin conforms.

  • It’s just as well. Most valedictorians have nothing to say and he’s probably got less than nothing to say. This just got it over with quicker.

  • I can’t speak on the legality of what he did, but do you really feel that deviating from the agreed upon script is perfectly acceptable simply because he’s a valedictorian? What if he got up and started talking about how white people are the best people or how he thinks heterosexual marriage is the only right kind of marriage?

    The faculty reviewed his original speech, gave it the thumbs up and told him if he deviated his mic would be cut off. I think it’s completely reasonable to say that if you are the only student getting a platform to speak in front of an audience at a government funded event (a public school graduation) your speech must be inclusive and respectful of the audience and that you have no special right to speak in front of that audience if you are not willing to abide by those terms.

  • John Kruger

    Hmm, presumably the Valedictorian is not seen as a spokesperson for the institution, so it is very different than a school official compelling others to listen or participate in a prayer. It seems fairly similar to a student being allowed to use religious ideas in classwork, so long as there is no endorsement or requirement of such ideas from the school that could affect grading.

    Then again, the school did provide the public speaking opportunity, and presumably vetted the speech.

    Tricky. I would tend to err on the side of inaction on this, legally speaking.

    I have to agree with Dr. X, most of those speeches are tiresome and overlong strings of platitudes, at least it was over quickly.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Wanna bet on whether Rob Costner IV ends up going to Liberty “University”?

  • Who Knows?

    Yeah, the young man took the brave stand to do what he knew would win him the adulation of nearly everyone around him. Way to boldly face the trials and tribulations of being a white, heterosexual, middle-class Christian in these here United States of America.

  • Uh oh, he said forgive us our trespasses, now all the Lutherans are pissed that he didn’t say forgive us our debts, and where’s the mentions of the times of trial!? The ELLC is going to have his head on a pike!

    Lutherans from the ELCA wouldn’t have had a problem as they say “trespasses.”

  • As a Christian, I admire and respect any and all beliefs that work for the best in humanity. I doubt I’m all that unusual, and don’t think there would have been a riot if he’d offered a Muslim prayer instead. Not sure about the legalities, but he wasn’t teaching it in a classroom, and he didn’t require anyone else to participate, so it can’t have been an incursion on religious liberties.

  • dingojack

    Kevin – since the audience were not free to leave (and presumably the student knew this) he did, in fact, force others to participate in his religious activity, in some cases against their own beliefs and in all cases against their own volition.

    It’s a simple as: ‘if they can’t leave, you can’t pray’.


  • Childermass

    The student is not an employee of the government acting in his official capacity and since the school clearly had no prior knowledge of what the student intended to do nor did it condone it — not even a wink-wink. Thus the speech is not in any way covered by the Establishment Clause.

    If you let a person make a speech, then you will have to live with what they say. The only recourse here would be IMHO some sanction against a breech of implied contract i.e. not giving the agreed to speech. And that I am sure would be a stretch and not worth trying. After all, I very much doubt that school has a record of penalizing people who give the wrong speech, it would be questionable to deny him a diploma, and if he is penalized for expressing a religious opinion he would instantly gain grounds for his own lawsuit.

    The fundies had their whine and most likely this will be the last of it. Most valedictorians have the sense to avoid religion and politics in speeches. And I suspect the percent of valedictorians who are fundamentalists is smaller than the percent of their student body anyways. Thus if I am wrong and this continues on for future years, eventually one will give a speech on the values of church/state separation.

  • dan4

    @11: “Well, I do think it’s important to respect the valedictorian’s speech-”


  • dan4

    @20: “Way to boldly face the trials and tribulations of being a white, heterosexual, middle-class Christian in these here United States.”

    Costner said the Lord’s Prayer, which only reflects the “Christian” part of your “white, heterosexual, middle-class Christian” characterization. He didn’t mention anything at all about his skin color, his sexual orientation, and his class status.

  • grumpyoldfart

    Until a few hundred years ago the Christians ruled with an iron fist and had the right to kill anyone who disagreed with them.

    Now they are reduced to using their children as human shields. Without a sympathetic law behind them, they stay quiet and send their children into battle – and the best the children can do is to disrupt the classroom.

    How the mighty have fallen.

  • Gvlgeologist, FCD

    One of the most contemptible parts of this whole situation is the huge applause that this privileged little asshole got. Most likely the majority of the audience knew that prayer was supposed to be off the table. They were, in effect, cheering that the rights of the objectors were denied.

    Such a Christian thing to do.

    You know, when I wrote the last line, I was trying to be sarcastic. On second thought, no, not so much.

  • slc1

    Re Pierce butler @ #19

    Given that he is a valedictorian, he probably has the grades and SAT scores to get into a respectable university. It would be a total waste for him to go to a phoney school like Liberty or Regent.

  • John Pieret

    Kevin Olson @ 22:

    Do you admire the fact that he deliberately lied to school officials about what he was going to say?

    No, it probably wasn’t a violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution because the government can’t prevent someone from being a liar. Are you proud of him for being a liar?