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My Turn: Here’s our thinking on prayer at the high school

In recent weeks the Concord School District administrators’ decisions regarding prayer on the high school campus have been questioned, initially by two national organizations, the Freedom from Religion Foundation based in Madison, Wis., and the Alliance Defending Freedom in Lawrenceville, Ga. We have also been the recipients of a letter-writing campaign by a number of New Hampshire residents, most of whom do not live in Concord and have no ties to the school district or students who are educated here. These individuals are expressing their opposition to our decisions. Furthermore, at least one individual has told us he plans to be at Concord High School when school begins, to pray.

In light of all of this, I felt it important to write to the Concord community to clarify the school district’s policy regarding both visitors and religious observances and displays in our schools and to offer the Concord community, in the context of these two policies, an explanation for the decisions we made regarding one parent’s request to pray on the high school steps last spring.

Our board and school policies require all visitors to our campuses to sign in at the main office of the schools. That policy has worked well for the school and school district and remains in effect. We also have a school board policy relating to religious observances and displays in our schools. The policy begins, “It is accepted that no religious belief or non-belief should be promoted by the school district or its employees and none should be disparaged.” It was in the context of these two policies that we made decisions regarding one parent’s request to pray on the high school steps at the beginning of each day.

The particular parent who made the request was someone with whom the administrators had been working for some time. Some of this parent’s prior requests to distribute literature or conduct classes had to be denied. This parent first began praying on property across the street from the high school or on the high school steps on weekend days. After bullets were found in a bathroom, this individual moved to the high school steps, praying quietly while students and staff arrived to school. When this occurred, we did not initially object. When her prayer became more public, however, and her actions became more demonstrative, we decided that our administrative actions could be considered an endorsement or promotion of this particular expression of religious belief. In addition, we do not allow individuals other than our students or staff to stand on the steps of the high school for any length of time to convey their message. The principal met with this parent, explained our concerns, and arrived at what we thought was mutual agreement for moving forward.

As we prepare to begin a new school year, our focus is on providing a safe and engaging school experience for all of our students. We appreciate the trust and support the community has given to the school district and will continue to do our best as we go about our mission of educating Concord’s children.

(Christine Rath is the Concord superintendent of schools.)

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