Roy Costner IV, the 2013 valedictorian at Liberty High School in South Carolina, recently made headlines for reciting the Lord’s Prayer at his graduation. His prayer was effectively a finger in the eyes of atheist activists and highlighted the thorny issues of free speech and school prayer. Here’s the highlight of his speech:
Can a school officially sponsor group prayers, even if a majority of the school’s population wants to pray? The answer appears to be no: The Supreme Court has rejected the constitutionality of school-initiated prayers at public school graduations. In Lee v. Weisman (1992), the Court held that Nathan Bishop Middle School in Rhode Island couldn’t invite a rabbi to pray at graduation. The Court said such an invite amounts to “a state-sponsored and state-directed religious exercise in a public school.” Thus if Liberty High School had approved Costner IV’s speech that included the Lord’s Prayer, the school could have faced legal trouble.
But Liberty High School didn’t do so, as Costner IV avoided informing the school that his speech would include prayer. This article must therefore ask: Was Costner IV’s speech illegal or unconstitutional? According to the Supreme Court in Tinker v. Des Moines (1968), the answer is no. Individuals are allowed to pray in public schools without facing punishment: “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Liberty High School could have punished Costner IV for insubordination, but the school chose not to do so.
I have argued before that religious influences should have a place in the public sphere. Costner IV’s speech shows how religious students across the country can pray in public schools: Take the lead and pray! Students don’t have to be valedictorians to engage in public prayer.