A Renegade Student’s Spotlight on School Prayer

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:

Costner IV included the Lord’s Prayer in his popular speech in response to the atheistic Freedom From Religion Foundation, which recently threatened to sue Liberty High School for sponsoring prayer at graduations. His speech shows that teachers or other school authorities don’t always “force” helpless students to pray in public places. Also, his speech demonstrates that local communities don’t always welcome atheist activists who insist on secularism in the public sphere.

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.

Paul Wilson About Paul Wilson

Paul Wilson is a media analyst at the Culture and Media Institute, who is also seeking his master’s degree in history at the Catholic University of America. You can follow him on Twitter at @PaulWilson34.

18 comments
Tired American
Tired American

If free speech no longer applies to prayer in this country, I'm leaving.

Tired American
Tired American

If free speech no longer applies to prayer in this country, I'm leaving.

cd
cd

Say the majority of our grocers established laws that we be taxed for their benefit and that we must shop at their stores.  No doubt, we would be terribly upset by the injustice and would stand together to repeal those laws.   Wide-scale government enforced grocery shopping doesn't exist.  It's a hypothetical situation.  But government schooling is not.  Public schools mandate taxation and truancy laws to promote them.   Without these two, no public school could stand on its own.  The fundamental issue is whether anyone should be forced by law to promote any school.  


cd
cd

Say the majority of our grocers established laws that we be taxed for their benefit and that we must shop at their stores.  No doubt, we would be terribly upset by the injustice and would stand together to repeal those laws.   Wide-scale government enforced grocery shopping doesn't exist.  It's a hypothetical situation.  But government schooling is not.  Public schools mandate taxation and truancy laws to promote them.   Without these two, no public school could stand on its own.  The fundamental issue is whether anyone should be forced by law to promote any school.

Fergus Hodgson
Fergus Hodgson

Tony and Paul, I really appreciate the work you do with this site. As you note, freedom of religion does not mean secularism, and I'm still baffled at the way people have accepted the notion that a belief in God is somehow illegal in the public sphere. The 1st Amendment specifically identifies Congress and not the states, and all of the original colonies identified God in their constitutions!

Fergus Hodgson
Fergus Hodgson

Tony and Paul, I really appreciate the work you do with this site. As you note, freedom of religion does not mean secularism, and I'm still baffled at the way people have accepted the notion that a belief in God is somehow illegal in the public sphere. The 1st Amendment specifically identifies Congress and not the states, and all of the original colonies identified God in their constitutions!

DreadPirateRogers
DreadPirateRogers

"And when ye pray, ye shall not be as the hypocrites: for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have received their reward."

-Matthew 6:5

DreadPirateRogers
DreadPirateRogers

"And when ye pray, ye shall not be as the hypocrites: for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have received their reward." -Matthew 6:5

PaulWilson34
PaulWilson34

@cd You raise good points, and in no way is my post a defense of public schools. I do question your assumption that Americans would be terribly upset about unjust laws about enforced shopping for certain goods: consider the recent establishment of Obamacare in America, which many (including me) are furious at but which many others simply do not care about or even welcome.

PaulWilson34
PaulWilson34

@cd You raise good points, and in no way is my post a defense of public schools. I do question your assumption that Americans would be terribly upset about unjust laws about enforced shopping for certain goods: consider the recent establishment of Obamacare in America, which many (including me) are furious at but which many others simply do not care about or even welcome.

PaulWilson34
PaulWilson34

@DreadPirateRogers 

Congratulations! You have just won the official "Ripping Scripture Out of Context Award" of the day!

If you wish to play the Bible quoting game, I could easily point out (off the top of my head): Mark 8:6-7, in which Jesus publicly blesses food before miraculously distributing it to waiting crowds, Matthew 27:46, in which Jesus quotes Psalm 22 on the cross (in a loud voice, no less), 1 Thessalonians 5:17, in which Paul exhorts Christians to pray without ceasing, and a host of other texts in which public prayer is shown in a positive light. And certainly by the logic you seem to be using, the pesky preaching in public places the apostles did to spread the message of Jesus Christ (see, for example Acts 5:17-42, 17:15-34) would of course be forbidden by a God who clearly exhorts us to keep our Faith private in Matthew 7:5.

Now it is of course correct to note that the danger inherent in public prayer is precisely the one Jesus raised: namely, that instead of giving glory to God, one gives glory to himself or herself by engaging in prayer in a public setting. Jesus tells a parable about that very problem in Luke 18:10-14, in which a Pharisee who exalts himself in his prayer is humbled, while a publican who acknowledges his sins is exalted. Prayer solely for the sake of self-gratification is not prayer; it is pride. Indeed, one could plausibly argue that Costner IV did so, that he was speaking to a crowd who agreed with him, and that he was engaging in public prayer solely as an exercise in showing "Christian pride," so to speak. That is between Costner IV and his God.

But it is silly to argue that any and all prayer offered in a public setting is contrary to the command of God, based on a cursory reading of one passage in Scripture. For one thing, such an attitude would conflict with other passages in Scripture; for another thing, a purely fundamentalist reading of the passage would preclude any prayer not given in one's own room.

This link gives a good overview of the question of whether or not Christians should engage in public prayer. One quote sums up this excellent piece:

"Public prayer should be God-honoring, selfless, and based in a true desire to speak to God and not to men. If we can pray publicly without violating these principles, we do well to pray publicly. If, however, our conscience forbids it, there is nothing less effective about a prayer offered in secret."

http://www.gotquestions.org/public-prayer.html#ixzz2XGxoTiQ1

PaulWilson34
PaulWilson34

@DreadPirateRogers  Congratulations! You have just won the official "Ripping Scripture Out of Context Award" of the day! If you wish to play the Bible quoting game, I could easily point out (off the top of my head): Mark 8:6-7, in which Jesus publicly blesses food before miraculously distributing it to waiting crowds, Matthew 27:46, in which Jesus quotes Psalm 22 on the cross (in a loud voice, no less), 1 Thessalonians 5:17, in which Paul exhorts Christians to pray without ceasing, and a host of other texts in which public prayer is shown in a positive light. And certainly by the logic you seem to be using, the pesky preaching in public places the apostles did to spread the message of Jesus Christ (see, for example Acts 5:17-42, 17:15-34) would of course be forbidden by a God who clearly exhorts us to keep our Faith private in Matthew 7:5. Now it is of course correct to note that the danger inherent in public prayer is precisely the one Jesus raised: namely, that instead of giving glory to God, one gives glory to himself or herself by engaging in prayer in a public setting. Jesus tells a parable about that very problem in Luke 18:10-14, in which a Pharisee who exalts himself in his prayer is humbled, while a publican who acknowledges his sins is exalted. Prayer solely for the sake of self-gratification is not prayer; it is pride. Indeed, one could plausibly argue that Costner IV did so, that he was speaking to a crowd who agreed with him, and that he was engaging in public prayer solely as an exercise in showing "Christian pride," so to speak. That is between Costner IV and his God. But it is silly to argue that any and all prayer offered in a public setting is contrary to the command of God, based on a cursory reading of one passage in Scripture. For one thing, such an attitude would conflict with other passages in Scripture; for another thing, a purely fundamentalist reading of the passage would preclude any prayer not given in one's own room. This link gives a good overview of the question of whether or not Christians should engage in public prayer. One quote sums up this excellent piece: "Public prayer should be God-honoring, selfless, and based in a true desire to speak to God and not to men. If we can pray publicly without violating these principles, we do well to pray publicly. If, however, our conscience forbids it, there is nothing less effective about a prayer offered in secret." http://www.gotquestions.org/public-prayer.html#ixzz2XGxoTiQ1

Tony Escobar
Tony Escobar moderator

@Fergus Hodgson A very appropriate update. That's a portion of the Snowden saga that had me scratching my head.

Tony Escobar
Tony Escobar

Fergus Hodgson A very appropriate update. That's a portion of the Snowden saga that had me scratching my head.