District Court Rules on a Graduation Speech About Jesus

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 for her 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)

  • http://lunchboxsw.wordpress.com Aaron

    Much agreed… what kind of “Christian witness” is that to outright disobey someone of authority. Not only that but the outright deception of her actions… not a case of free speech at all, but a case of respect, honesty and disobedience.

  • http://noadi.blogspot.com Noadi

    She chose to be dishonest in misrepresenting the speech she was going to give she has to suffer the consequences of those actions. I’d be much more sympathetic if she had submitted the speech she gave, had it rejected, and then gave it anyway.

  • Matto the Hun

    Ahh another liar for Jebus. How funny that people like this will go out of their way to contradict what their of so highly moral bible is supposedly all about… such as the bearing false witness. That’s what she did when she handed in on speech and read another.

    What a hypocritical bitch.

    Not only that, the “Jebus wuvs yoo” message was so obviously and clumsily shoe-horned into that speech. I thought valedictorians were supposed to be smart.

    She used her privilege as valedictorian (one of them at any rate) to blatantly proselytize.

    I agree that it would be one thing if that was the speech she submitted, but it wasn’t.

    As far as I understand it she would have the right to deliver the speech she ultimately gave. It still would be tasteless proselytizing that had nothing to do with the ceremony that day, but at least she wouldn’t have made a liar and a hypocrite out of herself.

    That’s inconsiderate, tasteless, and pathetic. It says more about here and the so called “values” she gets from her magic book.

    And of course after she takes advantage of her position as a valedictorian, after she lied about the speech she was going to give, she does what all Christians who like to shove their religion down other peoples’ throats do… she plays the persecution card.

  • http://www.tacomf.com JTorch

    If that had happened back when I graduated, I think I would have instinctively started booing at the first mention of Jesus.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com miller

    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.

    I agree, she can say what she wants if she follows the set rules. But I hardly think her speech is ideal. The whole “Let me tell you about a man named Jesus” thing is not nearly as effective as she might think. Of course, she means no offense, and wants to inspire people, but a good number of people will not feel inspired at all. I find it a little tacky. As if she were talking to a group of people who had never heard of Jesus, and were deeply interested in hearing more.

    But, you know, it’s just a little speech, and not everything needs to be perfect.

  • Matto the Hun

    Lets also not forget what probably doesn’t even need to be said here.

    Imagine the shit storm of angry and upset parents if there was also a student who shoe-horned in something to the effect of “There’s probably no god so lets not worry and enjoy our lives after high school.”

    Which IMHO would be equally out of place and tasteless.

  • Quentin

    Her speech sounds eerily like the sound of a lifetime’s worth of education and critical thinking skills being flushed down the toilet. What a tragedy.

  • Larry Huffman

    Yes…her willingness to break the rules in order to speak her religious views…and then try to use those same sets of rules to validate her poor decision through the courts, is just a sample of how christianity as a whole operates today. They want special consideration…but do not want to extend the same consideration to other religions or beliefs…and then they cry foul when someone makes them play by the rules. And they try to claim without their bible and values the world would be immoral and unethical. I think the opposite is far more true.

    Her speech would not have bothered me either, however. If she chose to offer such an over-heard mundane message at a time when she had a chance to actually say something herself…well it would just make me think they obviously made a bad choice in allowing 15 valedictorians…since, to me, that title is bestowed upon one or two who excelled in the intelligence and thinking dept…and any 8 year old with the proper brainwashing can parrot the drone of their religious leaders.

    She should not have been given a chance to apologize, however. The graduation is already water under the bridge. She should have been punished however any other rule-breaker was punished for graduation. You know…the troublemakers who launch firecrackers or streak…they usually do not get their diploma…or are denied gradnight or some such thing. She should have been treated like the common rule-breaker that she was.

  • David D.G.

    Larry Huffman wrote:

    Yes…her willingness to break the rules in order to speak her religious views…and then try to use those same sets of rules to validate her poor decision through the courts, is just a sample of how christianity as a whole operates today. They want special consideration…but do not want to extend the same consideration to other religions or beliefs…and then they cry foul when someone makes them play by the rules. And they try to claim without their bible and values the world would be immoral and unethical. I think the opposite is far more true.

    I agree with this wholeheartedly. The girl is a deceptive hypocrite with delusions of carte blanche entitlement. She broke the rules and deserved the consequences (which, in my opinion, were ridiculously light to start with).

    This was a good ruling, and the judges should be commended for it.

    ~David D.G.

  • Jude

    At my high school, her speech would have been perfectly acceptable. Our valedictorian a few years ago actually included an anti-abortion statement in addition to his religious statement. I thought it made him sound like a moron. Our high school recently not only allows two prayers at graduation, it hosted a baccalaureate. Time to call the ACLU.

  • Epistaxis

    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.

    I’m not a lawyer, but it seems to me that if the school officials had knowingly let her give the speech, they might have broken the law, but she still wouldn’t have.

  • http://twitter.com/RtPt RtPt

    What would have been said if it was an atheist speech instead of a Praise Jebus speech?

  • Emily

    It sounds to me like she was just doing it so she could sue. She wasn’t trying to spread any kind of message. She was fishing for a lawsuit and some quick money. The whole thing reeks to me.

  • http://www.banalleakage.com martymankins

    As others have said, I agree with this ruling. Subject matter of the given speech aside, it was the rule breaking that made it wrong and the court ruled correctly.

    rtpt said:

    What would have been said if it was an atheist speech instead of a Praise Jebus speech?

    It depends on the rules. If they forbade any mention of atheism, and the speaker mentioned that, a rule is a rule.

    People that are so far ingrained in their religion don’t see this as rule breaking. Their mindset thinks eternally and always in a 3rd person “God says it’s ok” and see rules as barriers to sharing their message.

  • atomjack

    One of my earliest memories in my indoctrination into the roman catholic faith is when a nun told the class about a fellow who prayed before he ate a meal. When someone asked him what he was doing, he explained about his belief system. The whole thing came off as if the praying guy was tough and rebellious, to me. I think that religious systems rely prey on that rebellion/martyr tack to recruit people. A lot of people enjoy being a rebel- you see it everywhere in the movies- it makes for high drama…all that angst! I found it unattractive, to say the least. But then, I build bridges, I don’t blow them up.

    I think what happened here is the girl tried that rebellion for jeebus thing, and it backfired.

  • medussa

    I think I’m most offended at her assumption that the audience was going to be swayed by yet another mention of “Didja know J-Dog died to save you?”

    Dis she really think no one there had heard this message before? Did she think the families and friends of her fellow students lived under a rock and had never heard this? And now hearing it from her, were going to break oout in song, start speaking in tongues and be saved?

    I think she was just collecting missionary points, gold stars in god’s book of Good vs Evil, a savings account of “what a good christian she is” statements, to offset her shotgun wedding in a few months.

  • EB

    Or…. What would have happened if she submitted a speech to the principal which was heavily laden with religion, and then given a secular speech instead?

  • Anonymous

    I went to this high school. Sufficient to say…I was not shocked when I first heard about this story a few years back. This school — and indeed, the whole town of Monument — is FILLED with Jesus Freaks who frequently go out of their way to be assholes about their belief system. It’s exactly like that movie “Saved!”, only real life. Monument is basically one giant satellite office of Focus on the Family.

  • http://raccoonsshelter.blogspot.com/ Diego

    I think she should have had the right to say whatever she wanted. Valedictorian speeches are usually the same thing over and over, very few times saying something different from what was the year before. The person who is stainding there has earned that right, so it must be his or her right to say whatever he or she wants.

    On the other hand, that’s not trhe case, there are rules that need to be respected and this girl did not do that. If she had presented her speech to the principal and she had denied her the right to say it, then she could make a case.

  • Abner Cadaver II

    As a recent high school graduate I can empathize with her betrayed fellow students. Graduation ceremonies are already insufferably long and throwing in a sermon just makes it worse for her comrades. Where’s the student solidarity and conspireality?

  • Charon

    Her speech was not acceptable. She was giving an official speech at a school event to a captive audience. The school had a complete right to censor what she said, and proselytizing should not have been allowed.

    I say this as someone whose (evangelical) friend sued our high school 10 years ago when they said he couldn’t proselytize in his speech at graduation. (He could thank god, etc., but not proselytize.) He was wrong in 1999 (and lost his case and appeals), and Erica was wrong in 2006. And I think Hemant is wrong now about this being acceptable speech.

    You could clearly argue that Santa Fe Independent School District v. Jane Doe (2000) applies. Students were not allowed to lead a prayer before a school event (football game) even if only students initiated and led it. And that’s not even a captive audience.

  • Miko

    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.

    Not necessarily. There wouldn’t be an Establishment Clause issue, but if the school is inviting you to speak on its forum then it has some control over your topic. For example, if I were invited to come speak for career day, I probably wouldn’t be allowed to talk about Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Not because the topic itself is objectionable, but merely because it wasn’t what I was invited to speak about.

    If a school wants to prohibit religious statements, it may be able to argue it is justified in doing so since it has a legitimate right to limit the topics discussed. On the other hand, if the school prevents religious statements from one student and allows them from another student or something similar, then it may end up with Establishment Clause troubles.

  • stogoe

    I guess if the speech is approved, she can say whatever she wants. But come on, don’t be a jerk. Everyone already knows about your special friend and savior, and graduation isn’t about him. The real problem with the Jesus graduation speech is that the speaker has no concept of appropriate venue, and is incapable or unwilling to imagine other religious views being espoused in the same public arenas.

    If the christians would consider this variant speech, maybe some of them would understand why there are some places and events where religious speechifying isn’t in their best interest: “Now I want to take a break from my formal remarks to let you all know that your special friend Jesus doesn’t exist. There is no heaven, there is no hell, there is no such thing as a god. Abandon your houses of worship – there is no truth there, and the priests are raping your children and robbing you blind.” If you don’t want to hear my atheist screed at your graduation, imagine how I feel about your christian screed at my graduation.

    Ah, who am I kidding? The ones who don’t get it are deliberately not getting it.

  • Turrboenvy

    @Charon

    That is the important distinction. It’s not like she holla’d at her special friend and thanked him for his help in math. Her preaching was inappropriate at best.

  • James H

    It’s a hideously inappropriate speech for a graduation ceremony, but I would argue that the issue presented here is not one of establishment of religion, but of her free exercise thereof. I probably would have ruled in her favor.


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