Justices Decline Appeal on Religious Speech at Graduation

By Mark Walsh — November 30, 2009 2 min read
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The Supreme Court today declined to hear the appeal of a public high school valedictorian whose diploma was withheld after she discussed her Christian faith at her commencement ceremony.

The student, Erica Corder of Lewis Palmer High School in Monument, Colo., gave a 30-second valedictory message at the 2006 commencement that included her desire to tell her fellow graduates “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,” Corder’s remarks continued, according to court documents. “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.”

The speech was different than the draft she had submitted for advance approval by school administrators. At the end of the ceremony, Corder was told she would not receive her diploma until she publicly apologized for her speech. She submitted a draft apology that said her statement reflected her own beliefs and were not endorsed by school officials. The principal required her to add this statement: “I realize that, had I asked ahead of time, I would not have been allowed to say what I did.” The apology was then e-mailed to the school community and Corder received her diploma.

Corder sued the Lewis-Palmer School District and various officials, alleging that their actions violated her First Amendment rights of free speech and free exercise of religion and other claims. A federal district court ruled for the school district, and in May, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in Denver, affirmed the district court.

The appeals court said that a valedictorian’s speech that is subject to advance school approval is a form of school-sponsored speech.

“A graduation ceremony is an opportunity for the School District to impart lessons on discipline, courtesy, and respect for authority,” the unanimous three-judge panel said in Corder v. Lewis-Palmer School District. “And, a School District is entitled to review the content of speeches in an effort to preserve neutrality on matters of controversy within a school environment.”

The court also rejected Corder’s claim that her forced apology was a form of unconsitutional compelled speech. “If the School District may censor Corder because her speech is school-sponsored rather than private, then so may the School District
tell her what to say when she disregards the School District’s policy regarding the
school-sponsored speech, as long as the compulsion is related to a legitimate
pedagogical purpose,” the 10th Circuit court said.

In their appeal of that ruling to the Supreme Court, lawyers for Corder argued that the 10th Circuit’s decision that valedictory speeches constitute school-sponsored speech conflicts with the high court’s precedents and with other federal appeals court rulings.

The justices declined without comment to hear the student’s appeal in Corder v. Lewis-Palmer School District (Case No. 09-257.)

Just two weeks ago, the justices declined to review another student’s appeal over a religious speech at graduation. In that case, which I discussed in this post, school officials merely turned off the microphone when the speaker veered into religion.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.

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