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: “
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.
Comments are closed.
My Latest Book!
Use Promo code UNITY for 40% discount!
Amen to your comments!
Nicely stated. I agree intentionally misleading the principal was not acting in a way that promotes a consistent and clear witness to Christ Jesus. It suggest that we, Christians, don’t think that the rules of society, in this case, the school apply to us. Though, she did make a very bold statement. I too admire that.
John, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.
I’m always surprised when Christians are deceitful and rationalize that it was somehow justified. It seems so clear to me in the Bible (see Psalm 15 for example) that God cares very much about us being honest. How did Christian teaching get so out of balance that Erika could have thought God would want her to lie to the school authorities so she could put something overt about Jesus in her speech?
I would love to see all Christian focusing on what sort of character qualities please God. Maybe then less errors of judgment like Erika’s would be made. And people outside the Christian faith would find themselves running out of Christians to complain about 😉
Like Paul the Apostle, I am happy that the gospel was preached through her. I understand that she wanted to make God known to the students. God will help her and we as Christians should pray for her for she is one with us in the body of Christ. Amen.
I admire Erika’s courage. I don’t think Christians are faithful witnesses to truth when they lie. John, I think your comments are correct, but I’m left wondering about some things.
“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.”
I wonder: How can a Christian preach the gospel effectively without promoting Christianity? Is there another way to do it truthfully and faithfully? Can we preach the gospel truth by carving out references the world doesn’t like?
“Where Erika Corder crossed the line was in telling other students that they needed to become Christians.”
I wonder: If the eternal destiny of one’s soul depends on becoming a Christian, how else would she tell the other students of their need without the gospel being reduced to being a preference with few if any consequences?
Brian wrote: I wonder: If the eternal destiny of one’s soul depends on becoming a Christian, how else would she tell the other students of their need without the gospel being reduced to being a preference with few if any consequences?
I don’t think you understand people who aren’t Christians very well if you think they’ll be impressed by someone saying “You need to be saved” who lied to the principal in order to do it.
They’re probably thinking “If being a Christian means being dishonest and deceitful, I’ll stay out of your religion and stay honest, thank you very much.”
There could be ways to advertise Jesus that the principal may have allowed. For example, she could given credit to Jesus for making her into a “valedictorian” representative. She could have thanked, not only her parents and teachers, but also her pastor or any mentors in her life. She could have told the student body what “worked” for her. It would be like her saying, “This is how Jesus helped me. He can help you too.” It would be more of a testimony. She could urge students to follow the truth, to seek a higher purpose, to look beyond the material to the spiritual and then use her own life as an example. I think there are ways to advertise Jesus that are appropriate in this setting.
I hope she loses, and must pay damages. In point of fact, I have had to sit through this kind of thing at PUBLICLY FUNDED events. I am not a christian. Many others in my school are not either. We do not want our tax money to be used in cramming someone else’s little pet rock or jesus obsession down our throats. It is possible and even easy to be non-sectarian in such events. Confine your religious fascism to non-public events, and all will be well.