Editorial: Praying mother doesn’t belong at Concord High
In retrospect, the most curious thing about the curious case of Lizarda Urena is that the Concord School District ever condoned her activity in the first place. And, once condoned, that it went on for so long.
Urena is the mother of Concord students and a Christian who, for months, spent 15 minutes each morning praying on the steps of Concord High School for the safety of the student body. Her practice began after two bullets were found in a school bathroom. She prayed aloud, with arms outstretched. Her message, she told Monitor reporter Kathleen Ronayne last spring: “Just love each other in the name of Jesus.”
After some initial complaints, she was asked to pray silently, rather than out loud. And now, after an atheist group called the Freedom From Religion Foundation protesting, she will not be allowed back at all.
It shouldn’t have taken such complaints for school officials to do the right thing.
Public schools can’t be seen as endorsing religion in general or, in this case, Christianity specifically. By letting Urena pray on school grounds, the school district was giving its implied stamp of approval to her conduct.
It’s easy to see why officials might have seen her message as benign; after all, she was praying for the safety of their students. But it’s also easy to imagine similar scenarios in which a nonstudent peddling a more controversial religious message would have been accused of trespassing and swiftly escorted off school property. Consider what might have happened if Urena wanted to assert that God won’t let gays into heaven; that Allah be praised; that there is no God.
Public schools are not the same as public squares. Nonstudents don’t have the right to preach or pray or proselytize there. Some Concord clergy and readers have wondered: Who was Urena hurting? But students on their way in and out of school – even just a single student – shouldn’t be made to feel like outsiders if they don’t believe what a school-approved prayer leader is promoting. And the schools certainly shouldn’t be in the position of approving some religious messages but not others.
In this country’s long history of church-versus-state battles, skirmishes over Scripture readings in school or the distribution of Bibles in classrooms are more familiar and, perhaps, more clear. But Concord isn’t the first district to wrestle with a nonstudent using school property to pray. A couple years back in Florida, a minister made a habit of leading prayers on the grounds of local elementary schools, often drawing a large crowd. There, too, the Freedom From Religion Foundation stepped in and rightly put an end to it.
We can understand why Superintendent Chris Rath chose not to comment to a Monitor reporter this week; after all, it seems she had assured the Freedom From Religion Foundation that Urena wouldn’t be praying on school grounds anymore before actually delivering the message to Urena herself. Nevertheless, the issue is a good one for students to wrestle with.
When school resumes next month, we encourage teachers and school officials to lead some thoughtful discussions at Concord High about the presence and now absence of Lizarda Urena.