The 2007-2008 school year opened with another lawsuit alleging infringement of a Christian student's religious rights. Erica Corder, a Lewis Palmer (Colo.) High School graduate, sued the district school board, saying her principal unfairly disciplined her for mentioning her faith at last year's commencement ceremony.
Attorneys told CT that graduation-related lawsuits are rare. But free speech on public school campuses remains a hotly contested legal issue.
"Lawsuits over religious expression have been a fertile ground for lawyers," said Tom Hutton, senior staff attorney for the National School Boards Association.
Corder's suit asks for "reasonable" damages and a declaration that the school violated her constitutional rights. Now a sophomore at Wheaton College, Corder claims she was forced to apologize by e-mail before receiving her diploma, even though she hadn't violated any school policy. She hopes to clarify the law and to enable students from all faiths to speak out without fear of recrimination.
"I'm fighting for their rights, too," said Corder, whose parents live near Colorado Springs.
The Virginia-based Liberty Counsel will argue her suit. Founder Mat Staver won a similar case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002, obtaining a ruling that permitted Jacksonville, Florida, graduates to deliver commencement messages of their choosing.
"They used illegal means to extort an apology from her," Staver said of Corder. "They threatened to withhold her diploma, which is serious."
According to Mike Johnson, senior legal counsel of the Alliance Defense Fund, "schools don't necessarily have an anti-Christian agenda; it's confusion about the law."
Yet some of the confusion stems from differing interpretations of the law.
Hutton noted that soon after the U.S. Department of Education issued religious-rights guidelines in 2003, a court told one Nevada school district to prevent proselytizing at graduation. Another Nevada district changed its commencement policy in response, but was sued by the American Civil Liberties Union.
"There's a million and one variations on factual issues," Hutton said. "Ultimately, it's the courts that decide, not the [federal government.]"
Carl Esbeck, a law professor at the University of Missouri, said Corder's case hinges on the circumstances surrounding her speech. "If the government [views commencement as] a limited public forum and it's private speech," he said, "then private speakers have access to the forum and within [it], there's to be no viewpoint discrimination."
Regardless of her lawsuit's outcome, Corder remains steadfast in her belief that God wanted her to share her views.
"On a day as important as my graduation, I wanted to give glory to him," she said.
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The Rocky Mountain News published Corder's commencement speech.
News coverage includes:
Colorado Student Files Lawsuit Over Commencement Speech That Mentioned Jesus | A student who said she was told she wouldn't get her diploma unless she apologized for a commencement speech in which she mentioned Jesus has filed a lawsuit alleging her free speech rights were violated. (Associated Press)
Valedictorian sues over 'Jesus speech' reprimand | In a lawsuit filed in federal court this week, Corder says the school violated her rights to free speech and equal protection. (Rocky Mountain News)
Earlier: Grad surprises school officials with comments about Jesus (Associated Press)
Other Christianity Today articles about law and politics are in our full coverage section.