When Roy Costner IV of Liberty High School delivered his valedictory speech, he chose to express his Christian faith and to recite The Lord’s Prayer—ostensibly as a form of protest against the school district’s new policy of not permitting prayer at graduation ceremonies.
Although his speech was met with overwhelming audience applause, it also violated school rules. The principal had previously specified that the student addresses could not reference religion. According to Costner:
She informed us that we could not have anything about religion or talk about God or Allah or whoever we choose to worship. And they had to approve the speech prior to me going onto stage.
Costner tore up his preapproved speech and delivered the rule-breaking one instead. A spokesman for the Pickens County School District, however, stated that Costner would not face disciplinary action. “The bottom line is, we’re not going to punish students for expressing their religious faiths.”
If the school district had no intention of penalizing students for expressing religious views, why did it prohibit such expression in student speeches in the first place?
Part of the explanation may be that the school district had recently received several complaints about unconstitutional school prayer and other violations of the separation of church and state.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) first contacted the Pickens County School Board in November 2012 in protest of the scheduling of student-led prayer at monthly Board meetings. Since November, the FFRF has been involved in several other complaints concerning the school district, including allegations of the teaching of Christian praise songs in the classroom and of religiously motivated hiring practices. An attorney with the FFRF claims that the Christian praise songs taught to second graders include lyrics such as, “Jesus Christ you are my Savior.” And a local news source quoted the Easley High School athletic director explaining what character traits he looked for in the newly hired football coach:
Number one, our coach is a Christian. To me, that’s the most important quality, simply because the devil’s after our children and the more quality people we can surround our children with, the better chance they have. Our coach may be the only Bible our kids ever see.
Clearly, in such instances, teachers or administrators in the Pickens County School District have violated the separation of church and state intended by the First Amendment. Government employees in taxpayer-funded, government schools are constitutionally prohibited from promoting their religious views or encouraging students to express religious views in the school setting.
However, the constitutional issues concerning Roy Costner’s speech are not so clear.
On the one hand, students are not agents of the government and thus are not properly forbidden from expressing their religious views in government-run schools. As long as they do not interfere with instructional time or push their religious views on others by badgering or bullying or the like, students retain their right to express their faith-based beliefs.
On the other hand, a “public” school graduation ceremony is a government-sponsored event, and speeches given at such an event can reasonably be regarded as sanctioned by the government school. Allowing students to give religious speeches at such events reasonably could be seen as a government endorsement of religion.
This conundrum highlights the inherent problem with government-run schools. Such controversies are impossible to settle without people being forced to fund and hear the expression of ideas with which they disagree—or being forbidden from expressing views that they regard as important.
As long as government schools exist, such conflicts will plague administrators, teachers, parents, students, and taxpayers. Private schools, of course, pose no such problems, as voluntary contracts settle all such matters: The owners and managers of a private school decide on its rules and policies, and people are free to contract with the school and thus agree to its policies or not.
Isn’t it time America discovered The Educational Bonanza in Privatizing Government Schools?