T he last thing we want to see is an overloaded federal court system burdened with another lawsuit. But we can’t say we’re disappointed that Erica Corder and her parents are suing a Colorado school district, claiming violations of the young woman’s First and 14th Amendment rights.
Her case raises constitutional questions of such consequence, touching on a gray area where clarity seems to be lacking, that we think the suit is necessary.
The case’s progress should be followed closely. It might just be history in the making.
Corder became a subject of controversy last year when she broke school rules by daring to use the J-word — Jesus — during valedictory remarks at a Lewis-Palmer School commencement event.
The comments were not approved in advance by school administrators, apparently violating a constitutionally questionable ban on religious-oriented statements at such events.
Then-principal Mark Brewer threatened to withhold Corder’s diploma unless she apologized. Corder released a statement explaining her actions, without apologizing. She received her diploma and the controversy died down. Or so it seemed.
Now, though Corder is in college, her family is suing. Not only did the district trample Erica’s free speech rights, according to the suit, but her equal protection rights were violated, because district policy “treats religious speech differently than nonreligious speech.”
The district stands by the constitutionality of its actions.
Corder told the Colorado Springs Gazette she brought the suit “to make sure the school understands what they did was wrong.” Her father, Steven Corder, who says he took this step reluctantly after the district refused to change its policies, says, “It’s really so that the Constitution can be turned to as the governing document in this type of situation.”
The Supreme Court earlier this year sided with school administrators over students in the “Bong hits for Jesus” case, ruling that school officials violated no rights when they disciplined a student who unfurled the now famous banner at a school event. Some justices seemed swayed by the fact that the banner’s message could be construed as pro-drug. Whether Corder’s more sincere profession of faith will be viewed by justices in a similar or different light will be key, if the case gets that far.
This is what Corder said, starting the ruckus: “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.”
That this statement might have made a few listeners squirm in their seats isn’t really relevant, since free speech rights aren’t contingent on the reaction they evoke in others — except in certain cases, such as yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. Corder’s use of the J-word sent no audience members rushing toward the exits.
Whatever their religious beliefs, or lack thereof, most audience members just endured the remarks stoically, as they do all the other commencement day rituals. No reasonable person would have construed these obviously personal remarks as an endorsement of religion by the state, which is what the establishment clause proscribes.
Corder’s detractors argue that she broke the rules and was in the wrong. Fair enough. But the issue is, are those rules reasonable, constitutional and just? And don’t we applaud those who challenge rules they believe are wrong or unconstitutional, such as Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr.? They both broke rules; King wasn’t in the Birmingham jail for shoplifting. But they did it for the right reasons.
Constitutional questions aside, we think it sends young Americans a confusing message when we adults teach them in school that they live in a free country, where freedom of speech is protected, but then dictate what they can and cannot say at a commencement event.
Maintaining order, discipline and decorum in school is important. But it’s ludicrous, and taking the notion of church-state separation to ridiculous extremes, to tell students they can’t speak about matters of personal faith.