Liberty, S.C. – When 18-year-old Roy Costner IV of Liberty, S.C., first heard about the controversy over prayer at public school events in Pickens County several months ago, he was perplexed and felt compelled to get involved. But he never expected that it would be his valedictorian speech that would draw national attention to this small town battle. In fact, he didn't even expect to be valedictorian of his graduating class.
"I am a strong Christian, and when I heard about our local school board getting attacked by the ACLU and Freedom From Religion Foundation, I realized it was outside groups pressuring our local officials," he said in an interview with The Christian Post. "The complaints came from a Wisconsin organization and the ACLU also tried to make things difficult, even though this was not a local problem and no one from our county had complained about public prayer."
Costner and his friends run a local news website, libertyspeaks.net, so they followed the school district's proceedings closely. "We stay involved in our community, so we all went to the school board meeting when they were deciding on public prayer and we packed it out," he recalls. "It was so crowded that you couldn't move inside, and there was a huge circle of people outside, too. It seemed like everyone in attendance supported prayer in schools, but the school board voted against prayer 3-2 even though not all the members were present for the vote."
The initial complaints from the Freedom From Religion Foundation only demanded that the school board stop prayers and invocations prior to their meetings, but Costner says that some board members were intimidated and reacted by instituting sweeping restrictions. "The school district got so scared and blew things out of proportion that they took prayer out of everything," he lamented. "They did not allow teachers or faculty or staff to participate in the annual 'See You At The Pole' initiative, and they banned prayer and all religious references from athletic events and anything school-related. They took away a lot of rights relating to prayer and free speech."
In addition to ending invocations at all school functions, school officials also decided to replace prayer at high school graduations with a "moment of silence."
Fast forward several months later to June 1, Liberty High School's graduation day held at Clemson's Littlejohn Coliseum. Roy Costner was the valedictorian of Liberty High School's Class of 2013. He was given strict guidelines for his speech and specifically warned to refrain from any prayers or religious references in his remarks. School officials required him to submit the text of his speech for approval prior to graduation, and Costner turned in a draft with no religious content. But when the moment came for him to deliver his speech, Costner confidently approached the podium, took his approved speech out of the school notebook, and ripped it in half for all to see.
"I first want to say that I turned in my speech to Ms. Gwinn [the principal] which she somehow seemed to approve, so obviously I didn't do my job well enough. So we're going to get rid of that and use a different one," he began.
"Those that we look up to, they have helped carve and mold us into the young adults that we are today. I'm so glad that both of my parents led me to the Lord at a young age," he continued.
And I think most of you will understand when I say…" he said, pausing briefly and stunning the crowd of several thousand with the words he spoke next. "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen."
Just a few words into his recitation of the Lord's Prayer, massive applause and cheering erupted from the audience, so loud in fact that Costner had to raise his voice to be heard.
"Well that was encouraging and emotional," he thought to himself, assuming that this chapter of his life had closed. But he had no idea of the repercussions of his actions. It hasn't even been a week since the event, and videos of his graduation speech have gone viral with one clip at over 170,000 views on YouTube so far.
"I've been so surprised that my story has made national news," Costner said. "It's drawing attention to the issue of prayer at school events, and I'm really encouraged to hear that the coverage might possibly cause the school board to reverse their anti-prayer policy."
Costner had been introduced at graduation by Liberty High School Principal Lori Gwinn as "A student near and dear to me and to us for four years." Gwinn described Costner by saying, "He greets everyone with a positive attitude and always has a smile on his face. He has a passion and an intensity that not many see fully; he has a vision too, and I eagerly anticipate what he will do with that for his future. He dreams big, encourages others, and creates his own path."
In an interview with The Christian Post, Roy Costner IV answered 5 questions about why he decided to defy school rules and pray at graduation, how he is responding to critics, and what he plans to do in the future.
CP: When did you first decide that you were going to defy the school board's rule and pray as part of your valedictorian speech?
Costner: Everything happened very recently. I didn't think I would be valedictorian at all. For a long time I had been in line for salutatorian. I didn't realize it, but I had taken an extra class that bumped me up by a fraction of a point and put me over the top to be valedictorian, so it was a surprised when I was informed of the honor.
I'm a procrastinator, so I waited to start writing my speech until just two weeks before the graduation ceremony. As I drafted my address, I felt led to include a prayer in it. I spoke to several pastors and different people in our community to seek their advice and counsel, because I wanted to be sure I was doing 100 percent of this for God and not for myself. After 2 or 3 days of praying, I felt that God was leading me to have prayer in the speech.
The school board had told me prior to the speech that I was not allowed to have any type of religious references and that the text would have to be preapproved by the board before the ceremony. So I turned in the exact same speech I was planning to deliver, except that I included God in the one I actually gave. All the approved speeches were put in a binder on the podium, so I snuck my speech in the sleeve of my shirt under my robe and took it out when I got to the microphone. I told everyone that our principal had approved my speech and we wouldn't be able to use that one, so I ripped it out of the binder and brought out the other one.
CP: How do you respond to critics who say that you were disrespectful to authority or even deceptive by tearing up your approved speech?
Costner: Let me first say that every person, regardless of their religious affiliation – whether they are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Atheist, or any other belief – should be allowed to say what they want because of the First Amendment. I felt that my free speech was being encroached upon, because I wasn't allowed to say what I wanted to say or acknowledge who I wanted to acknowledge.