In 2006, Erica Corder was named valedictorian at Lewis-Palmer High School near Colorado Springs, CO. She was one of 15 valedictorians (which I say defeats the whole purpose of the title).
Because of the number of top-ranked students, it was decided that all of them would give a 30-second speech at graduation. The principal would approve their speeches ahead of time.
The speech Corder gave to the principal, however, was very different from the one she delivered at graduation…
Her graduation speech went like this:
Throughout these lessons our teachers, parents, and let’s not forget our peers have supported and encouraged us along the way. Thank you all for the past four amazing years. Because of your love and devotion to our success, we have all learned how to endure change and remain strong individuals. We are all capable of standing firm and expressing our own beliefs, which is why I need to tell you about someone who loves you more than you could ever imagine. He died for you on a cross over 2,000 years ago, yet was resurrected and is living today in heaven. His name is Jesus Christ. If you don’t already know Him personally I encourage you to find out more about the sacrifice He made for you so that you now have the opportunity to live in eternity with Him. And we also encourage you, now that we are all ready to encounter the biggest change in our lives thus far, the transition from childhood to adulthood, to leave Lewis-Palmer with confidence and integrity. Congratulations class of 2006.
She decided to use her time to talk about Jesus. School officials didn’t like the breaking of rules. They told her she had to apologize before she could get her diploma (a fairly light punishment, I think).
She didn’t apologize, but she sent out an email statement:
At graduation, I know some of you may have been offended by what I said during the valedictorian speech. I did not intend to offend anyone. I also want to make it clear that [the principal] did not condone nor was he aware of my plans before giving the speech. I’m sorry I didn’t share my plans with [the principal] or the other valedictorians ahead of time. The valedictorians were not aware of what I was going to say. These were my personal beliefs and may not necessarily reflect the beliefs of the other valedictorians or the school staff.
The principal made her add a line: “I realize that, had I asked ahead of time, I would not have
been allowed to say what I did.”
After she got her diploma, Corder sued the school district for impinging upon her free speech. Last year a federal court threw out her case. Corder appealed to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
What did this court have to say?
In a decision released a few days ago, Judge Mary Beck Briscoe wrote (PDF):
It is clear from the facts Corder has alleged in her complaint that Corder was only required to follow the same religion-neutral policies as the other valedictorians. She was disciplined for her speech because she did not follow the religion-neutral policy of submitting her speech for prior review. Simply because Corder’s valedictory speech happened to mention her religious views does not support the allegation that she was disciplined
forher religious views. Corder’s complaint does not permit this inference, when the facts of her complaint state she was the sole valedictorian that did not follow the rules and therefore the sole valedictorian that was disciplined…
We conclude that the School District did not violate Corder’s First Amendment free exercise of religion rights by disciplining her for presenting a different valedictory speech than the one she gave to her principal for prior review.
It was a unanimous decision from the three-judge panel. It’s also the right decision. Corder broke the rules and then played it off as religious discrimination. She knew exactly what she was doing in breaking the rules, but didn’t want to face the punishment that came with it.
In a broader context, though, I’m not actually disturbed by her speech. My understanding has always been that public school officials were not allowed to make religious statements, but valedictorians and salutatorians, speaking as themselves, were allowed to say what they wished. The issue here is not the Jesus comments. The issue is that she went against the school rules in changing her speech.
I wonder what would’ve happened had she submitted her Jesus Speech to the principal ahead of time. Would school officials have allowed it to be said? If not, I feel this would be a much stronger case.
I tried getting in touch with Corder, but I haven’t heard back from her yet…
(via The Wall of Separation)