Valedictorian who touted Jesus sues over diploma feud

As she stepped to the microphone to give her commencement speech last spring, Erica Corder knew that what she was about to say might ruffle some feathers.

But the 2006 Lewis Palmer High School graduate — one of 15 valedictorians who addressed the crowd — didn’t believe she had a choice.

“I really felt God calling me to do this,” Corder said Thursday. “My top priority is obeying God.”

So Erica Corder thanked all the teachers, parents and peers in the crowd for their encouragement over the years.

Then, deviating from the 30-second speech that had been approved by the principal, she began speaking about “someone who loves you more than you could ever imagine.”

“His name is Jesus Christ,” Corder said. “If you don’t already know Him personally I encourage you to find out more about the sacrifice He made for you …”

The approximately 30-second speech sparked an immediate controversy.

Parents and students — including some of her fellow valedictorians — complained that Corder had been proselytizing, and that her comments were inappropriate for the occasion. She also took heat from school officials for deviating from the pre-approved script.

Before she was granted her diploma, Corder was required to apologize in an e-mail to the entire school community.

Now Corder is fighting back.

In a lawsuit filed in federal court this week, Corder says the Monument high school violated her rights to free speech and equal protection.

Corder’s father, Steve, said Thursday the Corders are not seeking money other than attorney fees.

Rather, they want to get clarity on an area of the law that has caused problems for graduation speakers of strong faith across the country in recent years.

“We don’t want future speakers to run into the same thing,” said Steve Corder, who works at Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family.

Lewis Palmer School District released a statement Wednesday saying it intends to “vigorously defend the claims.”

“While we are disappointed that this matter has resulted in litigation, we are confident that all actions taken by school officials were constitutionally appropriate,” the statement said.

“Beyond that, it is the district’s policy not to comment on pending litigation.”

The district has a written policy titled “Student Expression Rights,” according to the lawsuit. It prohibits expression that, among other things, is disruptive, obscene, vulgar, slanderous or threatens violence. It does not specifically prohibit religious speech, the lawsuit states.

The 15 valedictorians agreed before commencement that each person would speak for 30 seconds. Two people did the introduction, while others spoke about each year of high school. Corder and another student were tabbed to conclude the speeches.

Corder said the valedictorians had only a few days to prepare their speeches before they practiced them for the principal, Mark Brewer.

She knew she wanted to honor God in her remarks, but she didn’t do so in her practice speech because she knew there was a chance Brewer would prohibit the comments, and because she didn’t think there would be enough time to work through the issue with him, she said.

After the speech, she was escorted by a teacher to see the assistant principal, who told her she wouldn’t be getting her diploma, the lawsuit alleges. Five days later, in a meeting with Brewer, he told her the comments were “immature,” according to the lawsuit.

Corder agreed to issue an apology because she was worried that if she didn’t do so, it might affect her ability to attend college. She wrote a brief paragraph saying she did not intend to offend anyone, and that Brewer did not condone her words.

According to the lawsuit, Brewer required Corder to add the statement “I realize that, had I asked ahead of time, I would not have been allowed to say what I did.”

After her statement was distributed via e-mail, Corder received her diploma.

The lawsuit says Corder’s attorneys sent a letter to the school board a few weeks later, asking that the district rescind the apology e-mail and create a new policy that would allow religious speech.

When the district would not do so, Corder was unfairly portrayed as someone who doesn’t follow the rules, the suit claims.

Corder is being represented by attorneys from Virginia-based Liberty Counsel, a law firm that specializes in religious issues. The firm is associated with the Liberty University School of Law, part of the university founded by the late minister and televangelist Jerry Falwell.

Corder is now a sophomore at Wheaton College in Illinois, the alma mater of Billy Graham.

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Rocky Mountain News, USA
Aug. 30, 2007
Sara Burnett

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This post was last updated: Aug. 31, 2007