Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Same Sun Shines On Us All

In recent years, the virulent and unceasing attacks by the Religious Right on our civil liberties has helped create a culture of severe distrust between atheists like myself and the religious. Fundamentalist Christians have been preaching for years about the evils of atheism, Freethinkers and secular humanists; so much so that it's often difficult for the godless to build much of a trusting relationship with any Christian anymore. We've become so accustomed to the never-ending rabid dog assaults from the Dobsons, Robertsons, Falwells and Perkins of the country that we often fail to empathize when a member of the Christian majority finds itself on the receiving end of a First Amendment violation.

Such as in this case (from, via Focus on the Family's

A top high school graduate in Colorado who shared her faith in her valedictory was escorted from the ceremony by school staff and told she couldn't take her diploma home until she explained her actions to the principal and the parents of other graduates.

Erica Corder was among 14 Colorado Springs students who addressed their graduating class last month.


Here is the entire speech that caused all the trouble:

"Throughout these lessons our teachers, parents, and let's not forget our peers have supported and encouraged us along the way. Thank you all for the past four amazing years. Because of your love and devotion to our success, we have all learned how to endure change and remain strong individuals. 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. And we also encourage you, now that we are all ready to encounter the biggest change in our lives thus far, the transition from childhood to adulthood, to leave (our school) with confidence and integrity. Congratulations class of 2006."

As much as it causes me deep metaphysical pain to be in the position of agreeing with Focus on the Family, Agape Press and so on, I'm afraid that's exactly what's being required of me. I absolutely believe the school is in the wrong on this issue and I imagine they will face some legal or civil repercussions for it.

I've done quite a bit of reading on the legal framework around expressions of religion in public schools. is a great resource for explaining the issue in detail and giving the relevant case law. The consensus seems to be, in my inexpert opinion, that the question of students evangelizing to other students in speaker-to-audience situations is rather gray. The question would need to be answered as to whether the students in the audience had their rights violated by the speaker, in light of the fact that Corder is not a school official. The students in the audience also had the option and ability to leave the room if they found her words offensive; none chose to do so. As I see the facts of the event, I cannot see what principle the school has to stand upon. Corder has the Constitutionally-protected right to speak about her beliefs anywhere she likes and to anyone who cares to listen. That she was giving a commencement speech at a public school graduation does not seem to me to be cause to abrogate that right. I think the school erred.

That's not to say that I don't sympathize with the school district. Much debate has occurred in our country over the past 30 years as to just what is acceptable speech in a public school setting when religion is concerned. Schools often have to be very careful to not cross the line between allowing religious freedom and promoting religious dogma. It can be a very thin line. However, that line is much clearer where students, and not school officials, are concerned. Essentially, a public school student can pray, evangelize, pass out literature, give speeches, display symbols and generally promote their faith in any way they choose, so long as they don't cross the line into harassment. In this sense, I think what Corder did was protected free speech. However, I am sympathetic to the school's side, and I would hope that perhaps Corder and her family might be willing to accept an apology in lieu of a civil settlement. It would really be the Christian thing to do, though I won't hold my breath...

I do have to say that, as a secular humanist, I find Corder's speech somewhat crass as a graduation commencement. Had she talked about her faith in God and love of Christ as something personal to her, then I think it could have been a very moving speech. That she chose instead to evangelize how her beliefs ought to be the beliefs of everyone listening was crudely disrespectful of the other students. Perhaps their were Jews or Muslims or Hindus or Freethinkers in the graduating class that don't share Corder's particular faith, or any faith, and felt marginalized by her preaching. Perhaps not. Either way, though, I still believe Corder's right to give her speech in the way she gave it is protected by the First Amendment, even if I find the speech itself very lacking in taste.

I have to express a great deal of disappointment with the school officials, even as I sympathize with the difficulty of their responsibilities. There's a reason this story is plastered all over Focus on the Family, Agape Press and Fox "News"; these stories are the bread-and-butter of the neurotic Christian victimhood cult. Fox alone spent 15 minutes on an interview with Corder, complete with a sympathetic, cheering audience to gasp in the horror of their worst fears confirmed: "My God, the liberals really are trying to take our religion away!" These kinds of misteps allow unscrupulous religious and political leaders (pretty much the entire Religious Right and Republican Party, actually) to amp up their favorite motivational weapon: fear. This Colorado Springs high school made itself a convenient bogeyman, to the detriment of both Corder and secularists nationwide.

As a final note, I have to take issue with Liberty Counsel's Matt Staver, for making two truly boneheaded arguments in Corder's favor:


In fact, he [Staver] said, she [Corder] was completely within her constitutional rights to say whatever she wanted.

And two:

"She has a greater right to be able to speak because she's a valedictorian than even being elected by fellow students," he said. "Because she's there by virtue of her academic standing."

This guy's both general counsel and president of Liberty Counsel, and, in a just world, his ignorance would scare off any potential clients for about the next ten years. First of all, Corder certainly was not "within her constitutional rights to say whatever she wanted". I wonder if Mr. Staver would be making that claim if Corder had unleashed a Neo-Nazi diatribe against Jews or a Biblical call to stone all homosexuals. Somehow I don't think quite as many of her Christian peers would openly jump to her defense, Westboro Baptist Church notwithstanding.

Second, since when does the Bill of Rights grant greater freedom to those with good grades? I'm pretty sure Corder's right to speak as valedictorian is exactly equal to the hardest-struggling D-student's right to do the same. It's an interesting view into the conservative mind, is this comment by Staver. His notion seems to be that merit, however determined, grants greater rights in our country than democracy. Not too far of a stretch from voting rights being for white landowners only, or from a President appointed by the Supreme Court being considered legitimate.


repsac3 said...

I'm researching the case (which is how I got here)--it's hit the news, anew-- but I'm curious as to whether you're aware of some other facts:

This girl was one of 14 seniors giving a group speech. They wrote it together, and practiced it several times, including at least once before the school principal. Miss Corder's references to Jesus & her faith were never a part of the prepared speech.

Miss Corder was one of two students closing the speech, but she was not supposed to be the last speaker. She insisted on being able to close the speech, and made the other student trade positions.

Miss Corder refused to show her written remarks to anyone before making the speech. In fact, I heard (& am looking for) a news report stating that she planned this at least a month ahead of time, and intentionally kept it a secret from both the school and her fellow valadictorians.

I'm down with freedom of speech, and I don't object to a little God talk, either. But it looks to me like miss Corder knew what she was doing wasn't permitted, and intentionally circumvented the rules to evangalize for Jesus, without taking either the school or her classmates into account. I'm even good with that, if one feels strongly enough, but I also think that a person who feels so justified in breaking the rule should also be willing to accept the penalty for doing so...

Goode Design said...

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

has anyone forgotten that our schools (a governmentally supported entity) has no right to stop a person, particularly a student, from stating their beliefs & demonstrating their faith? Religious right my sphincter muscle! it's a question of, "Why should she apologize for her faith & expressing it outloud?" I don't get all up-in-arms because someone is bashing lifting Buddha or Islam.

It seems Erica's horrible mistake is that she truly believes her life and her faith is worth living & sharing. SHARING. I didn't here her condemn people to hell. I didn't here her forcefully proselytizing others; nor was she spewing hate-speech towards others & their beliefs.

You made one great observation: What does her diploma have to do with her remarks?

It seems our schools have become a place where courage is left to die and mediocrity is encouraged. No one is encouraged to take a stand for anything.

well, that's about 1 cent of my 2 cents worth... but i unfortunately am not feeling well today. i'll be in the bathroom if anyone needs me.

Anonymous said...

High school graduation is not the time to be talking about Jesus. It is not the time to be talking about Mohamed, Lord Zenu, The flying spaghetti monster, Buddha , or Vishnu either.

Erica knew this. This is why all the speeches needed to be approved of. By simply keeping it a happy occasion where everyone tells stories about "what a long strange trip it's been" and "I've learned so much here and loved every minute of it" Everyone goes home with a bunch of happy memories and some home video they can look back on when they're older and smile over. Thats all a graduation should be.

A high school graduation is not your personal podium to espouse whatever political and or religious beliefs you have. Just because someone gathers a bunch of people together in one place, then asks you to say a few polite words, doesn't mean you should start talking about your imaginary friends, or whats wrong with the world today, even if everything you say is true.

Yes you have freedom of speech. You can stand on any street corner and and yell about Jesus and about how if i don't know him, I'm going to hell. I support that. Hell, if you're a student of the school, you can do it in the hallways between classes for all I care.

When everyone gets together for a special occasion, there is a level of common courtesy that is expected of you. She knew her message wouldn't be appreciated, and rather then swallow her ego and let everyone have their special day, she decided to break the rules. I have absolutely no sympathy for her, and I'd have absolutely no sympathy for any student who decided to switch up their speech without approval, regardless of if they talked about Jesus, Iraq, or evolution.

This is not about freedom of speech. Nobody is denying Erica the right to say "believe in Jesus." Erica was given the Privilege of speaking to an audience, with the expectation that she would read a speech that was written by her, and approved by the school. Erica abused abused that privilege, and got punished for it.

bdshhi said...

I believe Goode Design had a great comment and I support it completly. At least they had the guts to stand by the comment. More than I can say for the Anonymous comment afterwards.

Anonymous said...

I find it interesting that a "believer of Jesus" would feel the need to lie and deceive the others "in the name of God". I guess it must be OK to lie if you invoke the name of God. After many years of Catholic school, I don't understand why some think it is OK to lie, cheat, and in some case kill in the name of God. Since this has been done for 2000 years, others like Erica must think it is OK for them as well. What I take away from this is the double standard that is held by the religious right. If you lie, cheat, steal, or kill you must be a sinner. But if you do it in the name of God it is OK. I am just not that enlightened.