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Concord administrators plan to stop mother from praying outside school

Lizarda Urena has prayed on the steps of Concord High School in May 2013. A mother of two students at Concord High School, she arrives at the school around 7-7:15 a.m. each morning to pray for the school's protection.

(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

Lizarda Urena has prayed on the steps of Concord High School in May 2013. A mother of two students at Concord High School, she arrives at the school around 7-7:15 a.m. each morning to pray for the school's protection. (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

The mother who prayed outside Concord High School every school day for several months will not be allowed to continue the practice next school year, according to correspondence between Superintendent Chris Rath and a national advocacy group that complained about her activity.

Lizarda Urena, the mother of two students, began praying on the steps outside the high school auditorium every morning after two bullets were found in a school toilet in February. She would spend about 15 minutes reading Bible verses and calling out prayers for the safety of the students. When the Monitor wrote a story about Urena in mid-May, both Principal Gene Connolly and school board President Kass Ardinger said they hadn’t received any complaints about her actions.

But that month a Concord resident contacted the Freedom From Religion Foundation to express concern about Urena’s actions. After requesting information about Concord High policies, the group’s attorney sent a letter to Rath saying the district should not allow Urena to continue praying at the school. Rath responded July 12, saying the district would tell Urena she could no longer pray on school district property.

Rath declined to comment this week, and Connolly did not return a phone call about the issue. Urena said administrators have not asked her to stop yet, but she said Connolly has asked to speak with her tomorrow, and she suspects it is about the praying.

“I already told my daughter this is about my prayer,” she said.

After the Monitor ’s article ran, Urena said she was asked to stop praying aloud but was permitted to stay on school property. She heard that people began complaining about her to administrators. When she began praying silently, some students approached her and asked why they could no longer hear her, she said.

Urena plans to continue praying for the students’ safety even if she can’t do so on campus. She will pray at her home or at the gas station across the street from the school, she said. Although she is sad she will be asked to leave, she said she appreciates that Connolly let her pray there for several months.

“I understand, and I appreciate Mr. Connolly giving me a good opportunity,” she said. “Even the superintendent, Chris Rath, she was nice to me, and I appreciate what they did.”

In its letter to Rath, the Freedom From Religion Foundation said public schools should protect children from, not expose them to, religious influences. Religion should be a private matter left to individuals, the letter said.

“In allowing Ms. Urena to pray aloud daily . . . the Concord School District is placing its ‘stamp of approval’ on the religious messages contained in her prayers,” it said.

In May, Connolly said he didn’t think Urena’s praying was a violation of the separation of church and state because she was not engaging with the students about religion.

“She’s not teaching prayer; she’s not out there asking kids to come with (her). She does not promote religion,” he said at the time.

Local religious leaders have a range of opinions on this issue. Pastor David Pinckney of the River of Grace Church said he doesn’t encourage his congregation to pray in public because Jesus says prayer should be private. But he does think our culture has become hypersensitive to public displays of religion. He said it’s “absurd” that Urena’s actions are being met with hostility when she is not harming anyone.

“Who is being hurt by a mom praying on the school step? Who?” he asked.

Both he and the Rev. Jason Wells of Grace Episcopal Church said there is a difference between public promotion and public display.

“The big question, I suppose, behind all this is whether or not her actions are in fact promoting one religion over others or promoting a religion over nonbelief,” Wells said.

But Rabbi Robin Nafshi of Temple Beth Jacob said she doesn’t think it’s okay for someone to pray on school grounds. The only time discussing religion on school property would be appropriate would be in some type of history course that explores a number of religions, she said.

“I think we have to be very, very careful when we condone, encourage, permit public prayers in public high schools,” she said.

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or or on Twitter at @kronayne.)

Legacy Comments20

Does the Freedom From Religion Foundation take issue with all deities or just the one that is associated with Jews and Christians?

May I take the liberty of quoting actual gospel text? By your leave, Matthew xi:6 - "But thou when thou shalt pray, enter into thy chamber, and having shut the door, pray to thy Father in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret will repay thee." This is from the Douai translation. I have no dog in the theology fight; I just like its poetry.

Why only Mrs. Urena? Why not have a member of each congregation praying on the school steps? Maybe twenty or thirty everyday. Problem is parking, they may want to band together and bring a church bus to the school. Students will love it, anything to keep their minds of studying. Then protesters and cops to protect the prayers. Could get awful congested. Maybe let the prayers stay at the school and all the students could use one of empty churches to study.

I might urge the school to exercise caution. As a governmental agency, they are bound to observe the constitution. This might be considered a breach against Freedom of Expression. Nothing wrong with a little prayer. This politically correct male bovine dung is really getting irritating!

Jvalley, I would urge you to exercise the constitutional concept of "separation of church and state." Ms. Urena's right to "Freedom of Expression" is NOT being breached. No one has told her that she can not pray, simply that she may not do so on public school property. Gene Connolly should never have granted her request.

I'm sorry, but separation of church and state does not appear in the constitution. Rather: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. I take that to mean, that the Government cannot force a person to worship agreeably to any particular doctrine, nor can a person be arrested for not worshipping. In this case, I see it as the School (aka Government) prohibiting the free exercise. Would I be offended if a person were holding a Koran reciting a Muslim prayer? Nope I wouldn't. Prayer is a personal religious reflection. I wouldn't be any more offended be it Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Muslim, etc. The whole Muslim comment wreaks of bigotry. I bet if I denied you something like this... You'd be screaming up a storm. Perhaps Wicca got something right... An if it harm none, do what ye will.

Bravo jvalley, well stated. I think the ACLJ should take up this case as this is a clear violation of Free Speech and the school administrators should get their hands spanked.

Of course "separation of church and state" does not appear in the Constitution. Neither do the phrases "checks and balances" or "separation of powers." Those are phrases used to describe various Constitutional doctrines rather than quotes from the text. That does not mean that they are incorrect or that they mis-describe those Constitutional doctrines. In this case, taking together the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment - exactly those provisions you cited - it is easy to see that the framers of the Constitution wanted the government to stay out of religion.

Well... actually, checks and balances are created within the framework of the constitution when it established the 3 branches of government. it clearly was intended as a check and balance to prevent a small group from having too much power, and thus acting like a tyrant or dictatorship. I strongly disagree that our founding fathers wanted religion out of government. Rather, I believe the intent was a government that was NOT controlled by the church, that each person was free to worship as they so choose, and not be forced into a state mandated religion, such as the government we fought to rid ourselves of, or to repeat what went on during the dark ages, where if you weren't aligned with the church, you labeled a heretic, tortured to confess. It is truly bothersome that I must bend to side "A" and remove all references of religion, god, commandments, and be tolerant of your choice, but there is no tolerance for those who embrace some form of theological framework, and you will not bend towards side "B". Seems a tad hypocritical in my opinion. Perhaps if people actually met somewhere in the middle, the PC Male Bovine Dung wouldn't be as pervasive as it is today.

J - that is exactly my point. Separation of church and state is also created within the framework of the Constitution - the anti-establishment and free exercise clauses work together to separate the state from the church. I think that you are correct when you say that the framers did not want the government to control the church, but they also did not want the church to control the government. The quandary is how to keep taxpayer money from supporting a particular religion while at the same time ensuring the individual's right of free religious expression. It's a complicated dance, and I'm not sure that the folks at Concord High have it right.

So you wouldn't mind a woman standing on the steps holding up a Koran chanting praise to Allah then? It's pretty simple, don't pray on public property and we won't think in your churches.

This is why we have churches in town.

Wow, she sure s a threat to the public at large, isn't she? I see FFRF is out of Madison Wisconsin. A group that goes out of their way to force religion out of the lives of others. They have been involved in having nativity scenes removed from public display, taking Christmas out of Christmas. Sure is great to see our leaders caving in to the demands of the FFRF and their 4 full time staff lawyers.

Because the FFRF focuses its attention almost exclusively on Christianity, that puts them squarely in the same category as those who single out Jews or any other religiously identified group for harassment. Yet the current culture of liberalism embraces the FFRF and its bullying.

So Rabbit, from your above statement, I guess you are opposed to the lawmakers in KS, OK, NC, SC and any other municipality which has enacted "anti-sharia laws" as this "puts them squarely in the same category as those who single out...any other religiously identified group for harassment"? Because I'm against these lawmakers for the insipid use of tax-payer dollars on unconstitutional, discriminatory bills.

Evidently praying for the safety of our students is forcing religion on them. So is saying Merry Christmas. The war on religion in this country is one that aims to make sure religion is kept out of the public eye. It is hypocritical on many levels. One could say that gays protesting outside Chic Filet is forcing their lifestyle choice on others. But that is okay. We are allowed to promote lifestyle choices. Praying outside the clinic is forbidden, because that is deemed forcing religion on others, as is saying Merry Christmas and demanding a Christmas Tree be called a Holiday Tree. Asking the Catholic Church to change their tenets is also okay. Believing that the Christian religion is a fairy tale, yet stating something you do not believe in will somehow force you to believe it makes no sense. Makes no sense on many levels. And the hypocrisy in regards to tolerance, diversity, etc, is voided because if you decide only your choices are the ones you tolerate, then that pretty much voids the whole idea of being tolerant.

There are several good points in the article. The school administration seems to be using some level of reason. It was pointed out that Urena does not in any way involve students in her prayer and does not stop anyone from listening to the words. There are a few things missing though. If one person objected, that should be stated and their identity should be shared. If multiple individuals complained, that also should be known. Next, freedom of speech and religion does not mean only in my home. Prayers are words/speech, they are clearly protected by the Constitution. Also, if I am correct, this lady pays school taxes like everyone else in the community, thus she should be able to stand on school property, she has ownership in that facility. For those who believe pray should be private, do they also believe we should refrain from wishing others "Have a good day", or "God bless you" when one sneezes, or "Hope you are feeling well" should not be used? But lastly, if praying for the safety of the students of that school is something we should fear, then those who think that should probably be under medical care by a psychologist...... The speech police are in our country in grand style, fortunately we have not gotten to the level used in middle eastern countries where people loose their lives over what they say ......

Mrs. Urena should be allowed to pray for the safety of the students at CHS. Shame on the administrators for preventing her from doing so. After the next act of violence at the school they might want to rethink their actions. Mrs. Urena is doing a good deed by praying and I say Bravo!

I think this is a tough one to call one way or the other, but to the extent it becomes a distraction for those on the campus, it may be problematic. No one is preventing her from praying for "the safety of students". She can do that anywhere--car, church, home, or school. What she's doing has transformed her prayer into a public spectacle, without any proof the prayer's efficacy has improved. The simple act of praying at school should be protected, and should provide a "teachable moment" for diverse points of view and tolerance for those whose beliefs and actions may be different. But at what point does a simple prayer turn into a religious service--however brief--on school grounds? I think that is the real issue here. And, as one poster seriously suggested above, what would happen if numerous denominations and sects joined in to conduct their 'prayers' as well? Suddenly the school's campus has morphed into something other than a school campus.

Hmmmmm . . . I predict this one's gonna get ugly. Should make for very interesting reading once school starts back up.

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