Lewis-Palmer High School

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver is being asked to affirm free speech rights for a student punished for expressing her religious faith at her graduation.

The dispute involves Erica Corder, a valedictorian at Lewis-Palmer High School near Colorado Springs in 2006. Her complaint, handled by the non-profit group Liberty Counsel, alleges school officials intimidated her and coerced into writing an “apology” after she gave the following testimony about her beliefs:

“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.”

Corder said officials withheld her diploma until she issued an apology, and the school “continues to portray her as a student who engaged in improper conduct because she mentioned Jesus Christ during her speech.”

In an e-mail to the local newspaper, the Gazette, district spokeswoman Robin Adair said school officials were correct.

“We are confident that all actions taken by school officials were constitutionally appropriate. As a result, we intend to vigorously defend the claims,” the e-mail said.

Liberty Counsel contends Corder’s First Amendment rights of free speech were violated when school officials “refused to present her with her diploma unless she issued an apology for mentioning Jesus Christ.” The group alleges a violation of the 14th Amendment right to equal protection because officials treated religious speech “differently” than nonreligious speech.

Liberty Counsel said before graduation in May 2006, Principal Mark Brewer told the valedictorians they could choose one student to speak, or all 15 could deliver 30-second messages. The students chose to all participate and picked a general topic for each speaker. Corder and one other student were assigned to deliver concluding messages.

The law firm said each valedictorian gave a proposed speech to the principal ahead of the graduation. Then during her 30-second message, Corder added some comments about her faith in Jesus.

The case now has been forwarded to the appeals level.

The brief raises the issue of the demand by the principal that the student include these specific words in her “apology”: “I realize that, had I asked ahead of time, I would not have been allowed to say what I did.”

The law firm said she complied out of fear the school would generate negative publicity about her and withhold her diploma. The principal did, in fact, forward her coerced statement to “the entire high school community.”

Mathew Staver, chief of Liberty Counsel, contends the school district had no right to coerce Corder to speak against her will when she was no longer a student.

“The
school district compounded its unconstitutional censorship of religious
viewpoints by forcing an exemplary alumnus to ‘confess’ to the school’s own
crime,” he said. “Graduation was over. The lights had been turned off. The people were
gone. Erica graduated and yet the school officials falsely claimed this
straight-A student could not graduate because she mentioned the name of
‘Jesus’ in her 30-second speech,” Staver said.

“This is unbelievable. Students do not shed
their right to free speech when they stand at the graduation podium,” he said.

 


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