Graduation Altercation

Corwyn Schultz Just Wanted A Commencement Ceremony Where He And His Family Would Feel Welcome

When 17-year-old Corwyn Schultz was a sophomore in high school, he asked his father if the principal had special rights.

“Corwyn told me that the principal would talk about God over the intercom in the morning and would ask for God’s blessing for whatever sports team was playing, for the troops or whatever was on his mind at the time,” recalled Danny Schultz, a retired member of the U.S. Air Force who served for 21 years. “We told Corrie that the principal didn’t have any special rights and that he should talk to his principal about this.”

Corwyn, with the encouragement of his parents, filed a complaint with his public school district over the principal’s behavior back in 2009. He did not receive a response, leading his parents to write a letter to both the principal and the superintendent.

“Three weeks later, the principal finally apologized to Corrie,” Danny recalled. “Things were quiet for a while, but then in 2010, his junior year, it started again.”

It has been a long battle for the Schultz family to stop Medina Valley Independent School District in Castroville, Texas, from continuing its policies allowing school officials to engage in religious activities and encourage students to also do so at school functions.

For years, the school district has violated students’ constitutional rights with school officials reciting Christian prayers over the intercom, before sporting events, in after-school extra-curricular activities and during class time. The audience was even led in a Christian prayer at the graduation ceremony of Corwyn’s older brother, Trevor.

“We chose not to stand for the prayer at Trevor’s graduation,” Danny said. “One lady next to us visibly began to pray harder for us, squinting up and saying the words faster. Some people got up and moved. We were scorned and mocked just because we chose to stay silent and not stand.”

Corwyn didn’t want his family members, who are agnostic, to face that type of judgment again at his graduation ceremony this year. In October 2010, the Schultz family contacted Americans United about the religious activities at Medina Valley. AU wrote a letter to the school district, asking the superintendent to discontinue these practices.

Citing two Supreme Court cases, Santa Fe Independent School District. v. Doe and Lee v. Weisman, AU’s letter asserted, “The U.S. Supreme Court has…unequivocally held that a public school’s inclusion of prayer in a graduation ceremony violates the Establishment Clause. A school cannot constitutionally make students choose between sitting through a prayer in order to attend commencement, on the one hand, and missing graduation in order to avoid being exposed to unwanted religious practice, on the other.”

Americans United’s attorneys never received a response, and 10 days prior to graduation, Corwyn learned there would still be official prayers at the ceremony.

“We absolutely support the kids’ rights to give speeches to talk about their faith and church,” Danny said. “We just didn’t want to be asked to stand and pray and have the same experience we had at Trevor’s graduation. That’s not fair to us, either.”

On May 25, Americans United followed up with the school district and informed officials that if they did not stop the school-sponsored prayers, AU planned to file a lawsuit. School district officials responded that they would continue with the prayers as planned.

On May 26, Americans United’s attorneys filed Schultz v. Medina Valley Independent School District, seeking a temporary restraining order barring the district from sponsoring prayers during graduation and a permanent injunction barring official prayers at future school events.

“The law here is clear: No school-sponsored prayer during commencement,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Graduation is an important rite of passage for young people, and all students should feel welcome at it, regardless of what they believe or don’t believe about God.”

At oral arguments before U.S. District Judge Samuel Frederick Biery Jr., school officials admitted that they planned to include an invocation and benediction during the event. Staying true to Supreme Court precedent, Biery ordered that official prayers be removed from the ceremony and said that students must be told that they may not attempt to lead their peers in prayer or other religious activities.

Following the district court ruling, many residents of Castroville, a community of 3,500 some 26 miles west of San Antonio, rallied in support of the school. They were angry that anyone would oppose prayers at graduation and that a court would uphold such a ban.

“You don’t mess with God’s Country,” one Castroville resident said in a local news report. “That judge might be able to forbid the school district from having a prayer, but nothing is going to stop this town from standing up and saying the Lord’s Prayer.”

He continued, “Oh, we will pray. We are talking about this on Facebook, in our restaurants, in our schools and in our homes and we [intend] on letting Americans know our students can and will pray.”

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott also put in his two cents, siding with the school and vowing to file a brief in support of the school district on appeal.

“Part of this goes to the very heart of the unraveling of moral values in this country,” Abbott told Fox News Radio, saying the judge wanted to turn school administrators into “speech police.”

He concluded, “[It’s] an ongoing attempt to purge God from the public setting while at the same time demanding from the courts an increased yielding to all things atheist and agnostic.”

With a vocal faction of the community and state politicians behind them, school officials soon appealed the decision to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“We want to be clear; it’s one parent’s position,” Assistant Superintendent Chris Martinez said. “We don’t believe, as a school district, that we have done anything wrong.”

The Liberty Institute, a Religious Right group, also filed a motion for intervention on behalf of Medina Valley High School valedictorian Angela Hildenbrand, arguing that the ruling censored her, even though as the chosen class speaker, she was speaking on behalf of the school.

The Medina Valley school district’s expression policy states: “A student is not using his or her own words when the student is reading or performing from an approved script, is delivering a message that has been approved in advance or otherwise supervised by school officials, or is making brief introductions or announcements.”

Still, Hildenbrand continued with her free speech argument.

“During my speech, I had hoped to use prayer to encourage my fellow graduates to trust God’s plan for their lives, but because of the judge’s ruling, I won’t be allowed to do so,” she said at a press conference. In the motion for intervention, Hildenbrand asked the 5th Circuit to permit her to pray and speak the words “Lord,” “in the name of Jesus,” and “Amen.”

On the evening of Friday, June 3, the night before the graduation, the 5th Circuit reversed the district court ruling, allowing school-sponsored prayer to go ahead.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) praised the decision and so did Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

“I’m proud that the Fifth Circuit Court has overturned the lower court’s order that banned prayer at a Texas high school graduation,” said Perry. “Texas will continue to fight for the rights of all those who wish to pray in our state.”

The limited time remaining left no chance for Americans United to appeal the decision, but AU lawyers are hoping to stop Medina Valley from continuing to violate student rights in future years.

Sadly, the court sysem made it difficult for AU to stop the school in time for Corwyn, who did not attend his graduation. The Schultzes feared for their safety, considering the hostility they had received for filing the case.

A friend of the family’s, Kelly Figueroa, who graduated with Corwyn’s older brother, did attend the ceremony. She told Church & State that the ceremony left her feeling anxious.

“People were being really rude and spiteful,” she said. “The people around me said some horrible things about Corrie when the names were being called. It’s as if they were waiting for his last name and preparing to boo him.”

Instead of attending the ceremony, the Schultzes had their own private celebration at home, and some of Corwyn’s friends, who supported him through this, joined him later.

“I’m really sad that I didn’t get to go,” Corwyn said. “I’m more upset that my family came down to see me walk, and I didn’t get to walk.

“It’s really sad it had to go this far,” he continued. “If they could have just not asked us to stand, or had a moment of silence, or sang a song, that would have been fine. But don’t put us in a spot where people will judge us.”

Danny and Christa Schultz, Corwyn’s mother, couldn’t be prouder of their son for standing up for his rights.

“He has a long history of standing up for what he believes in,” said Christa. “He was well-known in our last neighborhood for breaking up a cock-fighting ring when he was only eight years old. When he was home-schooled, he insisted on spending his civics hour outside on the sidewalk protesting that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.”

Continued Christa, “He’s always been very passionate about his rights. He’s never been one to stand aside.”

Since the eighth grade, when Corwyn started at Medina Valley, he has challenged his school for encouraging Christian beliefs.

On his first day there, he was put into a “leadership” course, which the school thought he would enjoy. He had been home-schooled, and administrators may have made the assumption he is Christian.

“[The teacher] would ask us to write speeches,” Corwyn recalled, “and if we wrote a speech that said something about God, she would be extra kind and grade you better on that. Anytime we would have class, she would always say ‘God bless you.’ I asked her not to do that, but she continued.”

Corwyn also recalled being chastised for not participating in a student-led prayer before band performances at football games. During his sophomore year, he was ordered by the band teacher to do push-ups for humming to himself during the invocation. The demeaning punishment led him to not participate in band the following year.

His outward stance on this issue put the spotlight on Corwyn’s beliefs about religion, and it shocked his classmates to learn he is not a Christian.

“They didn’t understand that there was something other than Christianity,” he said.

Now that he is a high school graduate, Corwyn plans to enroll in a two-year college, and he hopes to pursue a career in the culinary arts.

Despite losing the opening round in this lawsuit, the experience has been an eye-opening lesson for him.

“I learned that you can’t control human beings,” he said. “If people are blind to a faith, they will act upon that.”

It has also been an extraordinary experience for AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan, who oversaw the case along with Senior Litigation Counsel Alex J. Luchenitser. Donald H. Flanary III of Goldstein, Goldstein & Hilley served as local counsel in San Antonio.

“This case really brought home for me why I do what I do,” said Khan. “I cannot over-emphasize how inspiring the Schultz family is. Corrie has been advocating for an end to the school’s sponsorship of prayers and other religious activities for many years now, and he’s always done it in a deeply civilized and mature way, despite being met with unresponsiveness, and even criticism, by school officials. He’s a real hero, and he clearly takes his lead from his parents.”