Staying Neutral – The best one can hope for with the public school system

When it comes to having students represent a Christian worldview in the public school system, the best one can hope for any more is that the school systems will remain neutral, and not discriminate against a student’s free speech protections. Far too often, however, even that isn’t realized.

Just ask Erica Corder. Corder, as one of 15 valedictorians in 2006 of her high school class in the Lewis Palmer School District in Colorado, took her 30 second graduation speech before the student body to express her faith in Jesus Christ. That landed her in hot water with school officials who threatened to withhold her diploma if she didn’t send out an apology to her fellow students. Two years later her case is now being considered before the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals as she attempts to have the school system’s actions ruled unconstitutional.

And for what? Here’s what her speech said: “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 (our school) with confidence and integrity. Congratulations class of 2006.”

My how times have changed. When a student standing up for her faith such as Corder did in this speech is chastised by a tax-funded, public school system, something is wrong with that system. When a student utilizing her free speech protections has to go to court to see that those protections aren’t totally stripped away, this country must step back and take a look at what has gone wrong, and what the possible solutions are.

For its part, the non-profit group Liberty Counsel has taken up Corder’s cause and in March argued at the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in favor of Erica Corder. Steve Crampton, vice president for Legal Affairs and general counsel for Liberty Counsel, presented oral arguments in the case. The lawsuit against Lewis Palmer School District began in August 2007, following the school system’s actions against Corder. And what was the problem? Corder had decided to deviate from her prepared speech and express that message of her faith in Jesus Christ, which encouraged the audience to learn more about Him.

According to school administrators, she went too far. Corder was informed that because of her speech she would not be receiving her diploma with the other students and would have to meet with the school’s principal, Mark Brewer, who forced her to write the apology for her actions in order to receive her diploma, which she then did under protest. The apology was disseminated to the entire school community.

In June 2008 the initial trial court dismissed Corder’s complaint, finding that her speech was not her own, but was “school-sponsored,” and therefore the forced apology was not improper. But in its appeal, Liberty Counsel argued that Corder’s speech was private and entitled to full protection under both the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses of the U.S. Constitution.

“Erica Corder should have received a medal for her courageous message. Instead, the dream of her graduation address turned into an ongoing nightmare,” Crampton stated in March. “We are hopeful that the well-prepared panel who heard argument today will agree with us that there is simply no legitimate pedagogical interest in the school’s harsh treatment of Erica, simply for her sharing her faith. Forcing Erica to write an apology with which she did not agree is something you might expect in a totalitarian regime, but not in a free republic.”

But the public school system is becoming increasingly hostile to such speech, especially if it’s Christian in nature.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals could take up to three months to rule on the appeal by Liberty Counsel, according to Mathew D. Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel and dean of the Liberty University School of Law. In an interview in April, Staver said Corder, like the other valedictorians speaking that day, had every right to speak on spiritual matters as part of her valedictory speech, if she chose to do so. He said the school system should have remained neutral on the speech. But instead, it chose to take punitive actions against Corder which Staver said went beyond the boundaries of common sense. Those actions included having her write the apology. Staver said a school has the right to prohibit forms of speech that are slanderous, libelous or obscene, but they can’t censure someone’s viewpoint such as Corder was sharing. “She said what was on her heart,” Staver said. And by threatening to withhold her diploma the school was essentially “holding her hostage,” he added.

Staver said Liberty Counsel’s goal is to educate on what speech is allowed, but when abuses are found, he said the group is ready to litigate. Such an education effort of Liberty Counsel is its “Friend or Foe” Graduation Prayer Campaign. Through this effort, Liberty Counsel seeks to make sure that prayer and religious viewpoints are not suppressed during public school graduation ceremonies. And the job can often be cumbersome, because of the widespread abuse and misinformation handed out by public school systems.

Liberty Counsel has published a free legal memorandum on graduation prayer which is available at www.LC.org. Students are encouraged to wear Liberty Counsel’s red “I WILL PRAY” wristbands as a reminder to pray. Students have the constitutional right to wear religious jewelry and to pray at school.

In a case similar to Corder’s, Liberty Counsel, in 2006, represented Megan Chapman, a graduating senior and class chaplain in Russell Springs, Ky., She found herself the subject of a lawsuit by the ACLU and a court order forbidding her from praying during graduation. Her entire senior class reacted to the controversy by standing and reciting the Lord’s Prayer, after which Chapman stepped to the podium and shared about what God meant in her life.

After learning about Chapman, Dr. Jerry Falwell gave her and her twin sister, Mandy, full scholarships to Liberty University. Their story gained international attention after being featured on a segment of the award-winning CNN documentary, God’s Christian Warriors. The twins are finishing their third year at Liberty this year, where Chapman has volunteered for Liberty Counsel.

In a precedent-setting case against the ACLU, Adler v. Duval County School Board, Liberty Counsel won the right of students to pray or give religious messages at graduation. The case went before a federal appeals court five times and to the U.S. Supreme Court twice. The case established the legal principle that public schools are safe to adopt a policy allowing students or other speakers to present either secular or religious messages at events, including prayer.

But Staver said the problem is school administrators make students think otherwise. They use the bully pulpit of their position. Many times, he said, the students are threatened, as Corder was, with retribution to make them back down. “It’s easier for them to just shut up and move on,” he said of the students’ decisions not to take a stand.

At the very least, Liberty Counsel hopes this nation’s public school systems will remain neutral on such protected speech. “The purpose of Liberty Counsel’s ‘Friend or Foe’ Graduation Prayer Campaign is to protect religious viewpoints at graduation. Liberty Counsel is a friend to schools that recognize the free speech rights of students and invited speakers and the foe of those that violate their constitutional rights. The key to graduation prayer is that schools may neither command nor prohibit voluntary prayer or religious viewpoints,” Staver said.

In Corder’s case, the school system had a policy title “Student Expression Rights” prohibiting speech that was disruptive, obscene, vulgar, slanderous or threatened violence. Nothing about religious speech was mentioned. What’s even worse, the school’s principal allegedly called Corder “immature” for her remarks.

The real immaturity, however, is being shown by this nation’s public school system that increasingly stands antagonistic towards those who would mention Jesus Christ in a positive light. It’s a shame, but a reality just the same.

By Tom Wilmoth