Is It Ever Wrong to Do Overt Public Evangelism?

John ArmstrongEvangelism

Erika Corder is a serious young Christian and a sophomore at nearby Wheaton College, my alma mater. She has been in the news recently because of a federal lawsuit she brought against her former high school in Colorado. The suit may well have implications for the freedom of speech and religious expression in the days ahead. For Corder, whose father worked for Focus on the Family and mother worked at the World Prayer Center in Colorado Springs, her trouble came in the spring of 2006 when she gave a valedictory speech at Lewis Palmer High School. She saw this short speech as a great opportunity to spread the gospel and thus she made a very specific reference to Jesus and expressed the hope that her fellow students would come to know him as their Savior.

The real problem with Corder’s case is not that she spoke of Christ in public. This is allowable, at least in certain instances and ways. The issue is that the school had a specific policy on all valedictory speeches. They had to be written in advance and then approved by the principal. Corder gave her written speech to the principal but then altered it to include the explicitly Christian content. Corder defends her actions by saying she was obeying God and thus did not fear the consequences. (I admire her courage a great deal!) The school refused to grant her a diploma until she wrote an apology. She offered an apology in which she said she was sorry for not telling the principal the truth about her plans in the speech she submitted in advance. She concluded, “I realize that, had I asked ahead of time, I would not have been allowed to say what I did.” This choice she made is clearly at the nub of this specific case.

The goal of Corder’s lawsuit is genuinely noble. She does not seek any money, except for her attorney fees. She wants to clarify the laws in America regarding free speech and similar graduation ceremonies. The school provided no comment about the case other than saying it believes it acted properly and will vigorously defend its actions in court.

Surveys show that most high schools have rules that require pre-approval for all such public speeches. Most principals seem to feel that references to God, Jesus and faith are permissible, under certain circumstances and offered in a way that does not promote Christianity as such. Where Erika Corder crossed the line was in telling other students that they needed to become Christians.

Can Erika Corder win her case? Most law professors suggest the answer is “No.” Her major mistake was in not asking for permission. By this action she violated a clear policy that governs such ceremonies. This policy exists so that all types of inflammatory, and otherwise questionable speech, is not engaged in at these secular events. She made a premeditated decision to violate this policy and she clearly knew she was doing this when she did it. If her argument is that you can say anything you want at such events then racist, anti-Semitic, and otherwise hateful and ludicrous speech, could be defended at such school events. (If you don’t believe this can happen I am not sure where you live.) Northwestern Law professor Andrew Koppelman, who specializes in discrimination and religion, says: “[This] doesn’t seem like a particularly attractive First Amendment principle.” Koppelman admits that student speech in a school setting is a “gray area of the law” but, as in all public instances, free speech does not mean that you can say anything you want in public. This principle is inherent to understanding the First Amendment in our long history regarding free speech. For this reason I doubt Corder’s attorneys can win this case based on that fact alone.

My opinion, for whatever it’s worth, is quite simple. I think Erika should not have acted in this way, which lacked wisdom. A better informed understanding of Christian witness should have dictated a different approach to sharing her faith. Like so many zealous Christians we tend to think our responsibility to speak publicly about our faith trumps everything else. I question this conclusion biblically. I also think that openly misleading her principal is clearly not a proper way to bear faithful witness to God. Christians often have a good case regarding abuse of the freedom of speech but I am not sure this is a good case in the end.