(Photo courtesy of Angie Costner)
A spokesman for the public school district where a student recently decided to recite the Lord's Prayer instead of give a planned graduation speech has stated that students' rights should not be restricted.
On June 1, Liberty High School valedictorian Roy Costner IV ripped up his pre-approved speech and chose to deliver a speech that included the Lord's Prayer at his graduation ceremony. John Eby, public information specialist for the School District of Pickens County, S.C., told The Christian Post that a student's right to religious expression cannot be restricted.
"We also cannot pre-approve a message from the school – whether delivered by a student or a staff member – that endorses a religion," said Eby.
"However, we also cannot restrict the right of students to express their religious or non-religious beliefs when they are speaking on their own behalf."
Eby also stated that students "are free to pray or share their beliefs throughout the school day at any time and manner that doesn't interfere with classroom instruction. They are equally free to refrain from religious expression."
Costner's decision to pray the Our Father prayer was met with strong applause from the graduation audience. A video of his actions was posted last Monday and has already garnered over 724,000 views, as well as 6,500-plus likes and 730 dislikes.
In an earlier interview with The Christian Post, Costner explained that his decision to say the Lord's Prayer was in response to efforts from church-state watchdog groups to remove sectarian prayers from local public school events.
"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," said Costner.
"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."
While the audience applauded, Costner's decision was met with criticism from Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation.
"The valedictorian who so insensitively inflicted Christian prayer on a captive audience at a secular graduation ceremony is a product of a school district which itself has set an unconstitutional example by hosting school board prayer," said Gaylor in a statement.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State also criticized the move on the part of Costner. Simon Brown, writing on the Americans United blog "Wall of Separation," called Costner's prayer "selfish."
"The First Amendment is about protecting the beliefs of everyone, not about saying whatever you feel like regardless of the impact that has on the rights of others," wrote Brown.
When asked by CP if he thought any legal action might be taken against Pickens County, Eby responded that he was unsure.
"That's impossible to say. To this point, no legal action has been taken. We have been assured by our attorneys that the district handled the event properly," said Eby.
"The FFRF is entitled to its opinion. Roy has expressed what his motivations were, and he never cited school district support for religion as one of them. Roy made it abundantly clear that his prayer was not school-endorsed speech."