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Mom’s School Prayers Stir Legal Fight in N.H.

Lizarda Urena has prayed on the steps of Concord High School nearly everyday since February. A mother of two students at the school, she arrives around 7-7:15 a.m. each morning to pray for the school's protection. (Concord Monitor - John Tully)

Lizarda Urena has prayed on the steps of Concord High School nearly everyday since February. A mother of two students at the school, she arrives around 7-7:15 a.m. each morning to pray for the school's protection. (Concord Monitor - John Tully)

— 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 603-369-3309 or kronayne@cmonitor.com