Pomp And Circumvention: Graduating Senior Had No Right To Substitute Sermon For Speech, Says Court

Students break the rules and schools discipline them.

It's not a revolutionary concept, yet the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was forced to issue a ruling Friday that said just that.

The decision stemmed from a controversy over a graduation speech at a Colorado public high school, and the opinion reaffirms that school officials have every right to maintain religious neutrality at commencements.

Erica Corder was one of 15 valedictorians for the Class of 2006 at Lewis Palmer High School near Colorado Springs. The valedictorians voted that year to each speak for 30 seconds at graduation, and their speeches were to be reviewed by the principal prior to the ceremony.

Corder submitted a speech for review that made no mention of religion. At the graduation ceremony, however, she stated:

"We are all capable of standing firm and expressing our own beliefs, 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."

School officials were predictably unhappy at Corder's surprise sermon.

The school principal required her to issue a public apology in order to receive her diploma. Corder didn't apologize for the content of her speech, but did prepare this statement that later was distributed by e-mail:

"At graduation, I know some of you may have been offended by what I said during the valedictorian speech. I did not intend to offend anyone. I also want to make it clear that [the principal] did not condone nor was he aware of my plans before giving the speech. I'm sorry I didn't share my plans with [the principal] or the other valedictorians ahead of time. The valedictorians were not aware of what I was going to say. These were my personal beliefs and may not necessarily reflect the beliefs of the other valedictorians or the school staff."

The principal required Corder to also include this line in her statement: "I realize that, had I asked ahead of time, I would not have been allowed to say what I did."

Afterward, Corder filed a lawsuit against the school, alleging her free speech rights were violated, as well as her freedom of religion and equal protection rights. A federal court threw out her case last year, and the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision.

"It is clear from the facts...that Corder was only required to follow the same religion-neutral policies as the other valedictorians," Judge Mary Beck Briscoe wrote on behalf of the panel. "She was disciplined for her speech because she did not follow the religion-neutral policy of submitting her speech for prior review. Simply because Corder's valedictory speech happened to mention her religious views does not support the allegation that she was disciplined for her religious views."

Briscoe also said the school was within its right to review her speech because "[a] high school graduation ceremony under these circumstances is 'so closely connected to the school that it appears the school is somehow sponsoring the speech.'"

We applaud this court's decision that effectively upholds the religious neutrality of public schools, especially during an event as important as high school graduation.