Valedictorian Sues School Over Jesus Speech

A high school valedictorian filed a lawsuit against a Colorado school district Monday over being forced to make a public apology for sharing her Christian faith at her graduation ceremony.

Erica Corder says she was pressured last year by the principal of Lewis-Palmer High School in Monument, Colo., to write an apology to the school community stating that her message, which mentioned Jesus Christ, was her own and not endorsed by the principal of the school.

According to Liberty Counsel, which filed the suit against Lewis Palmer School District Board of Education on Corder's behalf, then-principal Mark Brewer insisted that Corder include the statement "I realize that, had I asked ahead of time, I would not have been allowed to say what I did."

Corder was one of 15 valedictorians from the Lewis-Palmer class of 2006. All 15 of the valedictorians were each given a general topic ahead of the gradation ceremony and were allotted 30-seconds to speak. Corder and another student were chosen to give concluding messages.

Although each of the valedictorians orally presented a proposed speech to the principal before graduation, during her 30-second message, Corder steered away from the approved speech to share about her faith in Jesus Christ and encouraged fellow classmates who "don't already know [Jesus] personally … to find out more about the sacrifice he made for you."

Following her speech, Corder was taken to the assistant principal, who said she would not receive her diploma because of her speech.

The principal, however, later indicated that Corder could receive her diploma despite her "immature" speech, but only if she wrote an apology to the community. Corder agreed to issue an apology because she wanted to receive her diploma and was afraid the school would put disciplinary notes in her file which could hinder her from becoming a school teacher.

Corder's message was sent out to the entire high school community via e-mail, after which she has continued to be the subject of criticism of school officials for the past year, according to Liberty Counsel. She received her diploma after writing the apology statement.

Liberty Counsel's letter on behalf of Corder argues that her First Amendment rights had been violated, and requested that the district apologize for the e-mail that Corder was forced to write and institute written policy to ensure that no future constitutional violations occur.

"Valedictorians have the right to express their religious viewpoints while at the graduation podium," said Mathew Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel and Dean of the Liberty University School of Law, in a statement.

"School officials have no right to threaten young graduate that their diplomas will be withheld. The school district's action in forcing Erica Corder to write an e-mail apologizing to the community for exercising her right to free speech is shocking," Staver said.

So far, the school board has taken no action in response to the letter.

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