Bob Dylan once said: “A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom.” By that standard, a South Carolina high school valedictorian who recited the Lord’s Prayer at his graduation is no hero.
When Liberty High School in Liberty, S.C., held its graduation last week, the ceremony was supposed to be devoid of coercive prayer. According to the Christian News, Pickens County School District decided this year to ban official prayers from events like graduations following multiple complaints by groups concerned about church-state separation.
As valedictorian, Roy Costner IV was tasked with giving a speech at his graduation. His remarks were approved in advance, the News said, but when it came time for Costner to speak he tore up his planned speech and launched into the Lord’s Prayer.
Costner prefaced the prayer with brief remarks, asserting, “Those that we look up to, they have helped carve and mold us into the young adults that we are today. I’m so glad that both of my parents led me to the Lord at a young age. And I think most of you will understand when I say… ‘Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name…’”
He ended up saying the entire prayer, which resulted in raucous applause from the audience.
Afterward, Costner told Glenn Beck’s The Blaze that this was no spontaneous protest; he warned his family in advance.
A spokesman for Pickens County schools told the News that Costner won’t be punished for “expressing [his] religious faith,” and since he’s a graduate, nothing could be done anyway.”
That’s a real shame, because it undermines the ban on coercive prayer and it effectively encourages future students to pull the same stunt.
Although some are calling Costner a hero of civil disobedience and a champion of the First Amendment, he is most certainly neither of those.
Costner was given the honor of speaking on behalf of his entire class, and even in rural South Carolina, surely at least some of his peers do not share his faith. Some may not even believe in God. Costner had a responsibility to represent everyone with his words and make all feel welcome at this public event, and he utterly failed at that.
Costner was also trusted by the school to stick to his approved script, but he instead chose to lie about his intentions and defy school policy. In what way is that honorable? Real heroes don’t stoop to deception to achieve their goals.
It’s also worth noting that Jesus advised against public prayer, saying in the Book of Matthew: “Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray while standing in synagogues and on street corners so that people can see them. Truly I say to you, they have their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret.”
Bob Dylan was right. Costner is not a hero because he didn’t understand his responsibility to the First Amendment. The First Amendment is about protecting the beliefs of everyone, not about saying whatever you feel like regardless of the impact that has on the rights of others.
Costner should also be clear on what constitutes real bravery: Saying something that pleases most people you’re speaking to takes no nerve whatsoever, and making a statement that carries no repercussions is not the stuff that courage is made of.
The Blaze said Costner will be a student at Clemson University this fall, studying computer science. While he’s there, let’s hope he also learns a thing or two about the Constitution.
P.S. If you want to hear a young person say something sensible about prayer in public settings, including high school graduations, check out this video from Scott, an AU intern.