Valedictorian Forced to Apologize for Speech Thanking Jesus Appeals to US Supreme Court

A high school graduate, forced by public school officials to apologize for expressing her religious beliefs in her valedictory address or lose her diploma, has asked the US Supreme Court to review her case and reverse a lower court’s decision that upheld the school’s violations of her religious liberties and constitutionally protected speech.

Liberty Counsel, a non-profit public advocacy group dedicated to advancing religious freedom, filed a Petition for Certiorari at the United States Supreme Court, on behalf of Erica Corder, who graduated with a 4.0 GPA but was denied her diploma until she issued a publically disseminated, coerced, written apology for presenting a thirty-second valedictory speech that included a reference to her faith in Jesus Christ. The petition asks the high court to review the case for themselves and if four justices out of nine justices agree, then Corder will get her final appeal before the full US Supreme Court.

Corder was one of fifteen valedictorians from the Lewis-Palmer High School class of 2006. Each valedictorian orally presented a proposed speech to the principal before graduation. However, at the graduation ceremony, Corder deviated from her prepared speech and expressed her faith in Jesus Christ, encouraging the audience to learn more about her Savior.

"We are all capable of standing firm and expressing our own beliefs," she said in her address, "which is why I need to tell you about someone who loves you more than you could ever imagine.¬† He died for you on a cross over 2,000 years ago, yet was resurrected and is living today in heaven. His name is Jesus Christ. If you don’t already know Him personally I encourage you to find out more about the sacrifice He made for you so that you now have the opportunity to live in eternity with Him."

Afterwards, she was escorted to see the assistant principal, who stated that Corder would not receive her diploma because of the speech she had given. Principal Mark Brewer then decided that Corder could only receive her diploma if she apologized to the school community.

Corder prepared a statement saying the message was her own and was not endorsed by the principal. But Principal Brewer also insisted that she include the words: "I realize that, had I asked ahead of time, I would not have been allowed to say what I did."

Brewer sent out the valedictorian’s message in an e-mail to the entire high school community. Shortly thereafter, Erica received her diploma.

Nonetheless, Liberty Counsel points out that Corder only complied because she feared the school would withhold her diploma, put damaging disciplinary notes in her file, and would generate negative publicity that could prevent her from becoming a school teacher.

"A valedictorian’s speech is not government speech. Everyone knows that a valedictorian earned the high GPA and understands the speech belongs to the student," said Mat Staver, the founder of Liberty Counsel and one of Corder’s representatives. "It is reprehensible that the school district threatened to withhold Erica Corder’s diploma, merely because a few sentences of her 30-second speech included references to God."

Corder filed suit against the Lewis-Palmer School District of Colorado in August 2007, seeking declaratory relief and nominal damages for a violation of her First Amendment right to freedom of speech. The district court ruled there was no constitutional violation, stating that Corder’s speech was "school-sponsored," and therefore the forced apology was not improper. This past May, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals denied¬†Corder’s appeal and affirmed the ruling.

However Liberty Counsel is arguing that the Tenth Circuit’s decision undermines student free speech rights and conflicts with an Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decision, another graduation message case called Adler v. Duval County School Board. There a 12-judge panel of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals sitting en banc sided with Liberty Counsel against the ACLU and found that a policy whereby students select the content of their messages is student speech, not school-sponsored speech.

Liberty Counsel hopes to use the precedent to argue before the Supreme Court that the religious viewpoints of students are protected by the First Amendment. The case is Corder v. Lewis-Palmer School District No. 38.

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