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Concord High’s praying mother chooses legal representation

Lizarda Urena has prayed on the steps of Concord High School nearly everyday since February. A mom 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 nearly everyday since February. A mom 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 Alliance Defending Freedom will provide legal services to Lizarda Urena of Concord to challenge the Concord School District’s decision to disallow her from praying on school property.

Urena began praying out loud on steps outside the school in February after bullets were found in a school toilet. She read verses from the Bible but never physically interfered with students on their way into the building. Last month, after the district received inquiries and complaints about her actions, Principal Gene Connolly told Urena she could no longer pray on campus. One complaint came from the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which said her praying violated the separation of church and state.

Matthew Sharp, general counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, said yesterday the group has not filed a lawsuit and is still determining how to move forward. The group provides all legal services pro bono.

“We think the facts in this one really matter,” Sharp said. “She was (praying) passively. I think she was providing a great example there of just a mother that is passionate about wanting what’s best for her kids.”

Sharp argues that Urena’s speech is protected under the First Amendment and that the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s assertion that her praying violates the separation of church and state is “blatantly false.”

“It’s the private speech of a parent, not the endorsed speech of the school,” he said.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation filed its complaint in early July, and in a response dated July 12, Superintendent Chris Rath said Urena would no longer be allowed to pray on school property. Connolly met with Urena several weeks later to tell her the praying must stop. John Teague, the school district’s attorney, said the decision to ask Urena to stop was not driven by the foundation’s complaint. The school had already received informal inquiries about Urena’s practice from community members and had decided the action would no longer be allowed, he said.

Urena was connected to Sharp through former state representative David Bates, a Windham Republican who took interest in the case after reading news reports. Bates has been filing his own Right-to-Know requests with the district regarding prayer policies and said he believes Urena’s rights are being violated.

Urena did not return a request for comment, as Sharp is now handling her media inquiries.

Sharp also said schools can have neutral policies regarding how parents can interact with their children on campus. Parents can usually visit campus for a number of activities, such as volunteering or visiting their child for lunch, he said. Under a policy that broadly allowed for parents to come on campus without discriminating against anyone, Urena’s prayer would be acceptable and would not violate the separation of church and state, Sharp said.

“There’s nothing wrong with the school creating an opportunity for parents to come on campus and be involved in the students’ lives,” he said.

The district does not have a formal policy about prayer because any school policy would be eclipsed by the U.S. Constitution, said Teague, the school’s attorney. This case falls under the debate about how much someone is allowed to exercise their rights to free speech before violating the establishment clause, which has been ongoing since the country’s founding, he said.

“It’s very much like flipping a coin and trying to get it to stand on its edge,” he said. “You don’t want it to go one way or the other, though some people will perceive that it has.”

Although it is positive to have these debates, the school district was not seeking a confrontation when Connolly and Rath decided how to handle Urena’s praying, Teague said. But soon there may be more people trying to pray on campus. Bates said he plans to be at the high school on the first day of classes, and others may join him. It was unclear yesterday whether Urena would join that group, as she could not be reached for comment.

“This whole situation they thought was going to go away by making this blanket prohibition may very well turn into an impetus to have many, many more people show up to pray,” he said.

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

Our public school should remain focused, like a laser, on it's mission to provide a high quality education to our children at the most affordable cost possible. Any activity by a parent, or special interest groups, that is inconsistent with this simple mission should be discouraged. These activities may of course be undertaken outside school grounds at no cost to our school budget. But when these outside groups, including troubled and insecure interlopers like David Bates (from Salem!) who would seek to take advantage of a kind soul like Urena for their own selfish aggrandizing purposes, we in Concord should stand together and say, firmly "No, not when our kids are involved." I hope we are not forced by these sad and immature groups to waste any of our hard-earned tax dollars on these sad and selfish activities that are inconsistent with the mission of our schools.

Ms. Urena's prayers will be equally effective when she recites them from the public sidewalk. Parents (or visitors, teachers or administrators) have no business conducting religious rites on public school property. Students may pray whenever they wish, providing they are not disrupting the functioning of the school to do so. How would these defenders of Ms. Urena like it if I came to the school and started promoting my atheist views on the school steps? How about if the Satanists turn up and start burning Bibles every morning? People always seem to want to overlook the fact that when you open the door to religious proselytization, more than one religion is going to stroll right in.

She is free to pray for her own children but why do it on the school steps? By her own admission she is praying for ALL students which is unacceptable. She is not in charge of another persons religious leanings. The original permission was erroneous at best so I'll skip over the part about it being Constitutionally unlawful. I'd be interested to know if she is a congregant at an established church or if this is another chapter in her self proclaimed 'ministering' as she has stated she does in NYC. If she is not, I wonder how many would support her behavior knowing she was doing this without guidance from a theological hierarchy. As this spins out of control I am most annoyed that it all started based on one man's actions in allowing her to begin her daily ritual. Sadly another waste of hard earned tax dollars.

Oh me too, because of course that will mean school grounds will then be open to ALL constitutionally protected religious rituals. I have VISIONS of: evangelistic snake charming; Indian Hindu and Muslim baby dropping; female genital cutting and circumcision; Shia tatbir with celebrants slashing their heads with short swords to draw blood; the UDV Church’s union of the plants with hallucinogenic Huasca tea; Jainist Digambar with its nude monks; ritual animal sacrifice like the Jewish Kaparot (choking, swinging and slaughtering a chicken); and of course, Eastern Orthodox exorcism. Clearly I graduated from CHS too early!

(Actually intended as a "Reply" to "DesertFox".)

The Concord School District better counter sue this woman for all of the legal costs this frivolous lawsuit will cost the taxpayers of Concord. If this woman wants to pray for the safety of the children of CHS then by all means she is free to do so, but she doesn't have to do so on school property. Whatever god she believes in should be able to hear her from her house, right? This is nothing but an attention-seeking ploy to bring light on the argument for religion in schools and should be shut down immediately. I encourage everyone to write or call the Concord School district and let them know the taxpayers shouldn't have to be burdened by this woman and her agenda. Counter sue and make her put her money where her mouth is.

Did it ever occur to any of you that this woman had no motives but to wish our students well and protected? Have we become so quick to judge, that we forget there are actually good people out there with no motives? Sad.

The thought crossed my mind - the only problem is that perhaps my God is not the same as hers. If she truly was interested in praying for protection she would do so as Christian faith proscribes - silently and privately, lest she be mistaken for a hypocrite only doing so to be seen. Before you criticize that thought - because I know you will - check the Gospel of Matthew 6:5-6.

Her motives may be perfectly fine, but that doesn't change the fact that religious proselytization from a visiting adult has no place on a public school campus. It's illegal.

Miss_H: lets at least use proper terminology here. To proselytize means to attempt to convert from one religion or opinion to another. In this case, this person did neither. The simple act of praying is not the act of persuading someone to change their theological position or opine. Could you please cite the state or federal statute that you are basing your claim on that makes this is illegal? The act of prayer is protected by the Constitution. The Constitution protects the right to worship as one pleases, and says the government cant force someone to worship in a particular manner.

“RabbitNH,” is it safe to say that, religiously, you count yourself as a Christian?

Not really Common Grind. I lean more toward being a Daoist. Brought up Catholic but rejected it pretty much in the 60's. I am very spiritual in regards to spirits, etc. I pretty much live by the theory live and let live. Brought up poor, I am fiscally sharp in regards to myself. I deplore laziness, and being corrupt, which comes from my ethical background. I believe in self reliance, and charity. Also have a little superstition in me in regards to bad luck, from my grandma.

Motivation is irrelevant. It doesn't matter what her true purpose is, the result is unacceptable on a public school property.

I agree with you. And we should not support politically correct teachings in schools either. No teaching about homosexuality, no free birth control behind parents backs, no teaching about Islam being a religion of peace. Those are unacceptable as well.

Bravo, this is great news for Mrs. Urena and I PRAY she prevails in her case against the Concord School officials. Shame on them for shutting her prayers down on the steps of CHS.

(Please refer to my post above; I meant it as a "Reply.")

Shame on the principal for giving this woman permission because doing so is tantamount to condoning religious practices. The last time I checked the school is barred from doing so under the terms of the Constitution. Luckily the Superintendent realized the error and reversed it.

".. and I PRAY she prevails in her case .." Go nuts. Just dont do it loudly on taxpayer owned property.

OK. Let's welcome Muslim prayers there, too. But what about those who do not believe in a god? What can they do in the exercise of their non-religion? And, yes, it is "official" action to allow religious exercise on public school property, and therefore clearly a violation of the 1st Amendment. Some group and some lawyer with an agenda for pushing Christian values on the rest of us will make lots of noise, and claim victory for God and country when they rightly lose.

While we are also arranging a Muslim time of prayer, lets also ask a local coven to come out and do a sage burning and cleansing. Lets place out some fruits and incense as well. It's really easy for Atheist's to be accommodated, simply let them show up and do nothing. Really, your narrow mindedness Veritas is troublesome. Why do people with your mindset have to bring 'scare tactics' such as a perceived fear of Islam to a conversation like this? Noone was pushing any specific theological theory on anyone. It is simply a concerned parent who is doing what she feels compelled to do for the safety of her children and everyone elses. It's not harming anyone or anything! What's next from people like yourself? Stop this woman, because my property taxes will go down? Stop this woman, to protect the children? Really, you are on the doorstep of that argument!

Scare tactics are geered toward the uninformed. The mindset of paranoia and the idea that someone prays for safety and protection is pushing religion on anyone is troubling. Especially from the party that claims to be all about fairness, choice etc. But we have seen these scare tactics before. Remember they are the ones who threw granny over the cliff in the ad about SSI. All geered toward the uninformed.

Hold on - why can't we arrange a Muslim time of prayer? Why can't a coven do a sage burning? Athiests, Agnostics, Buddhists? What is narrow minded is that it seems unless the prayer is of the Christian persuasion it's a scare tactic. You can't possibly think that the only concerned parents in the world are Christians. What she is doing may not be physically harmful but it is inappropriate at best and most certainly illegal. By allowing only Christian prayer you are ultimately saying that all other religions are inferior and that is not only harmful but totally un- Christian. This is one of the exact reasons

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