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FIRST-PERSON: Standing when others don’t

CLEMSON, S.C. (BP) — Roy B. Costner IV garnered national attention earlier this year when he ripped up his preapproved valedictorian speech, enacted his First Amendment right and began reciting The Lord’s Prayer at his graduation ceremony.

An unsuspecting school district got just what they were trying to avoid, and the astonished crowd erupted into applause. His actions spread like wildfire across a nation once founded upon biblical principles.

The prayer was Costner’s response to his South Carolina school district’s decision to abandon student–led invocations at board meetings, which eventually trickled down to axing prayers at any school gatherings including graduation.

Under advisement from attorneys, the district recently backed down on its longtime policy and cowered under pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Freedom from Religious Foundation. The board’s 3-2 decision went against the heartfelt values of its conservative community.

Costner began his message by respectfully acknowledging those in attendance and mentioning his preapproved speech. “So we are going to get rid of that one and use a different one,” he said. After tearing up that speech, he pulled an alternate one from the shirtsleeve under his robe and deviated from what was approved.

He graciously thanked the many people who “helped to carve and mold us into the young adults we are today.” He honored his parents by saying, “I’m so glad both of my parents led me to the Lord at a young age.”

Then Costner continued with, “I think most of you will understand when I say, ‘Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name ….'” As he prayed, the crowd began to cheer and some joined him in reciting the prayer. The cheers escalated to a roar and thunderous clapping with some rising to their feet.

Was he nervous? “Yes,” admitted Costner. “I did not know what the outcome would be.” But he was willing to take a stand for what he believed. His address went viral on YouTube with more than 1,000,000 hits.

Costner took a stand many adults have failed to take. Many leaders in our country simply retreat in fear when atheist groups threaten to sue rather than standing in faith. Wendell Estep, pastor of First Baptist Church in Columbia, S.C., recently cited Costner as an example of courage for all of us.

The Bible says in Isaiah 11:6, “And a child shall lead them,” but in this case, it was a student. As a result of Costner’s bold actions, many have been encouraged to stand themselves. Only time will tell the impact of Costner’s “shot heard around our country.”

It appeared by the looks on their faces that many school district employees were supportive of what Costner did but were confined by the time, energy and resources a legal battle consumes.

Costner has no regrets. He stated, “I want this to glorify God. I hope this will inspire others to stand up for God in our nation.”

The valedictorian was interviewed on Fox & Friends after his speech and said, “I don’t understand why we can’t pray at my graduation when ‘under God’ is in our pledge and our constitution.” That’s a good question considering we’ve been doing this for more than 200 years. In his eyes, “We have freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.”

Costner’s stand reminded me of a movie released last year by Kevin McAfee called “Last Ounce of Courage,” a must-see film for all Christians today. The movie is about a small town mayor and his grandson who are motivated to stand against the ACLU and bring the celebration of Christmas back to their town.

After being informed of his ranking as valedictorian, Costner knew he would include in his speech the one thing his Bible Belt community was passionate about: prayer. Costner marveled that he was even able to make it to graduation. After his premature birth, his father was told his son would probably not make it.

Costner is just beginning to see the reason God allowed him to survive and how God can do extraordinary things through ordinary people. Yes, even a small town boy from Liberty, S.C.

He was told his speech must be approved and he could not pray or make any reference to God in it. That’s tough for a student whose life is centered on his faith.

After consulting with his father who is a minister at a local church, he knew his father was behind him. His father advised him, “Don’t do it for politics, do it for God.” Young Costner spent much time in Bible study and prayer, asking God, “What should I do?” He felt led to recite The Lord’s Prayer since it would resonate with all denominations.

One of Costner’s friends, Brett Harris, a high school student and a youth leader at First Baptist Church in Pickens, S.C., challenged the school board after their decision, “Shouldn’t you be fearing God more than men?”

According to revival historian J. Edwin Orr, “Young people in student-led prayer cells have been at the forefront in almost every awakening.” Our country is desperately in need of a Josiah-like revival, and maybe our youth will ignite the flames and lead the way.
Ginny Dent Brant is a speaker, former IMB trustee and the author of “Finding True Freedom: From the White House to the World,” a memoir of life with her late father, Harry S. Dent Sr., who served presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. Her website is ginnybrant.com. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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  • Ginny Dent Brant