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Penalty for Christian testimony challenged

An appeals court in Denver has been asked to acknowledge the free speech rights of students by overturning a lower court's approval of a penalty imposed by a school district for a testimony of Christian faith.

Lewis-Palmer High School

Lawyers for Liberty Counsel have argued before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver on behalf of Erica Corder, a high school valedictorian who was forced publicly to apologize for sharing her Christian faith during a 30-second message at graduation.

Her legal team reported Corder, a valedictorian at Lewis-Palmer High School near Colorado Springs in 2006, was forced to apologize for her faith statement:

"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."

Corder said officials withheld her diploma until she issued an apology, and the school "continues to portray her as a student who engaged in improper conduct because she mentioned Jesus Christ during her speech."

In an e-mail to the local newspaper, the Gazette, district spokeswoman Robin Adair said school officials were correct.

"We are confident that all actions taken by school officials were constitutionally appropriate. As a result, we intend to vigorously defend the claims," the e-mail said.

Liberty Counsel contends Corder's First Amendment rights of free speech were violated when school officials "refused to present her with her diploma unless she issued an apology for mentioning Jesus Christ." The group alleges a violation of the 14th Amendment right to equal protection because officials treated religious speech "differently" than nonreligious speech.

Liberty Counsel said before graduation in May 2006, Principal Mark Brewer told the valedictorians they could choose one student to speak, or all 15 could deliver 30-second messages. The students chose to all participate and picked a general topic for each speaker. Corder and one other student were assigned to deliver concluding messages.

The law firm said each valedictorian gave a proposed speech to the principal ahead of the graduation. Then during her 30-second message, Corder added some comments about her faith in Jesus.

Steve Crampton, general counsel for Liberty Counsel, argued before the appeals court the district court's decision that Corder's words were school speech was incorrect.

The speech, he argued, was Corder's private speech and was entitled to the full protection both of the Free Speech and Free Exercise clauses of the U.S. Constitution.

"Erica Corder should have received a medal for her courageous message. Instead, the dream of her graduation address turned into an ongoing nightmare," Crampton said. "We are hopeful that the well-prepared panel who heard argument today will agree with us that there is simply no legitimate pedagogical interest in the school’s harsh treatment of Erica, simply for her sharing her faith.

"Forcing Erica to write an apology with which she did not agree is something you might expect in a totalitarian regime, but not in a free republic," he said.

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