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) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »
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.