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God, free speech and a lawsuit
Wheaton College student takes her graduation address fight to courts
By James Fuller | Daily Herald Staff

Erika Corder, now a student at Wheaton College, is involved in a federal lawsuit sparked by her Colorado high school graduation speech, which encouraged classmates to find Jesus.


Ed Lee | Staff Photographer

Erika Corder says she "wasn't as concerned about the discipline they might give as I was about obeying God" when she gave her controversial graduation speech.


Ed Lee | Staff Photographer

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Published: 10/29/2007 12:06 AM

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Erika Corder says she was just a high school sophomore when she first felt the power of God.

She had a Christian upbringing. Her father worked for Focus on the Family, an Evangelical Christian ministry. Her mother worked for the World Prayer Center.

One of the few non-Christian aspects of her young life was her best friend.

So Corder prayed for God to make her friend a Christian. The friend was baptized a year later.

"At that point, I was able to understand the power of God, the power of prayer and the role of God's power in our lives," Corder said.

But the second time Corder heard God's voice, she got in trouble.

Now the Wheaton College student is at the center of a federal lawsuit against her former Colorado high school that may have national implications on freedom of speech and religious expression.

Corder is teaming with Liberty Counsel, a national public interest law firm that specializes in religious liberty, sanctity of life and traditional family issues. Corder hopes her lawsuit will pave the way for students of all faiths to publicly express their beliefs at school graduations without punishment.

Lawyers from both sides are scheduled to meet with a federal court judge Tuesday.

Leap of faith

Corder's trouble came in spring 2006 when she was one of 15 valedictorians set to give short speeches during her graduation from Lewis Palmer High School in Monument, Colo.

She saw the speech as a chance, given to her by God, to spread His word.

But she also was aware that mentioning Jesus Christ would be controversial.

So when the students gave preview readings for the principal, Corder didn't share the part of her speech she'd already committed to in her heart.

Corder says she didn't want to choose between God and disobeying her principal if he told her to remove religious references.

Then came graduation.

"I was pretty nervous," Corder said. "I just started asking God to give me the strength and prepare me for what he wanted me to do. I wasn't as concerned about the discipline they might give as I was about obeying God."

Corder was the final speaker. She thanked Jesus for dying on the cross for everyone, and encouraged the audience to learn about him.

When graduation ended, the assistant principal told her she wouldn't receive her diploma. She had a date with Principal Mark Brewer instead.

"At that point it was all in God's hands," Corder said. "It's so hard to explain to someone who's not a Christian that God asked you to do something. God is more important to me than anything else in the world."

The principal told her the comments about Jesus were inappropriate for the venue. Corder would have to apologize to the entire community if she wanted her diploma.

She refused. It seemed like another test of her faith.

But soon she felt guilty for all the heat her principal received from the community. So she wrote an apology -- not about what she said, but in recognition that she didn't ask permission and wouldn't have been allowed to talk about Jesus if she had.

Corder got her diploma. She's now a sophomore at Wheaton College, a private Christian school.

The goal of her lawsuit is to bring clarity to laws across the country regarding graduation ceremonies and religious free speech. She seeks no money other than attorney fees.

"I just wanted to make sure that it didn't happen again at our school, that students could feel free to say what they believe without getting in trouble," Corder said.

Officials at Corder's high school would not comment other than this written statement:

"While we are disappointed that this matter has resulted in litigation, we are confident that all actions taken by school officials were constitutionally appropriate. As a result, we intend to vigorously defend the claims."

No policies in place

Closer to home, numerous suburban school administrators said they don't have policies about religious speech at graduations. They acknowledge it's a tough issue pitting free speech with the potential to offend.

Northwest Suburban High School District 214 and Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire have committees that review all speeches beforehand. Any deviations from the speech at graduation would result in termination of the speech and possible discipline.

The trigger to stopping a speech would be anything deemed to be inappropriate. That's where religion makes things sticky, Stevenson Principal Janet Gonzalez said.

"As long as it's the child's personal story, that might be OK," she said. "But calling on others to do something, I don't know if that would be appropriate."

Jim Schmid, principal of Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora, deems "inappropriate" in a manner akin to court definitions of pornography.

"We know it when we see it," he said. "It's a free speech issue, and we'd probably have to decide exactly what he or she is saying and how strongly they feel about it. Those are the kind of situations you have to deal with one at a time."

The audience, too, might help shape the meaning of what is inappropriate.

Minutes away from Wheaton College, Wheaton North High School Principal Jill Bullo said the school community's well-known spirituality makes things a little different.

"I'm surprised I've not had that issue come up here yet," Bullo said. "Religion is very important to the Wheaton North kids. They usually do thank Jesus or God for where they are in their personal lives."

For Bullo, and perhaps the courts, the line in the sand may begin with disobeying school rules by deviating from a pre-approved speech as Corder did.

"If they don't give their speech as written, then I pull their diplomas and they and their parents have to meet with me," Bullo said.

God loses

Northwestern Law Professor Andrew Koppelman said Corder has no chance at winning her lawsuit.

Corder's major error was not asking permission ahead of time, Koppelman said. If she asked, and the principal denied her, she could've asked the courts for an injunction blocking the school from barring her free speech.

Instead, Corder made a premeditated decision to defy the principal's authority to review the true content of her speech beforehand.

"If her argument, then, is that you can say absolutely anything that you want, then anyone could start saying racist and anti-Semitic remarks and the principal wouldn't be able to stop you," said Koppelman, who specializes in Constitutional law, discrimination and religion. "That doesn't seem like a particularly attractive First Amendment principle."

The defense that Corder made her speech because God told her to won't fly either, Koppelman said, because that could be used to justify any behavior.

Despite Koppelman's prediction about the case, he said it is an important one to follow. Student speech in a school setting is a gray area of the law, he said.

"There's a nice discussion to be had about what the law ought to be in this area."

The speech

Throughout these lessons our teachers, parents and let's not forget our peers have supported and encouraged us along the way. Thank you all for the past four amazing years. Because of your love and devotion to our success, we have all learned how to endure change and remain strong individuals.

We are all capable of standing firm and expressing our own beliefs, which is why I need to tell you 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. 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.

And we also encourage you, now that we are all ready to encounter the biggest change in our lives thus far, the transition from childhood to adulthood, to leave Lewis-Palmer with confidence and integrity. Congratulations class of 2006.

The apology

At graduation I know some of you may have been offended by what I said during the valedictorian speech. I did not intend to offend anyone.

I also want to make it clear that Mr. Brewer (Principal Mark Brewer) did not condone, nor was he aware of my plans before giving the speech. I'm sorry I didn't share my plans with Mr. Brewer or the other valedictorians ahead of time. The valedictorians were not aware of what I was going to say.

These were my personal beliefs and may not necessarily reflect the beliefs of the other valedictorians or school staff. I realize that, had I asked ahead of time, I would not have been allowed to say what I did.