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Concord bans mom from praying at steps of school each morning

New Hampshire Union Leader

July 25. 2013 10:54PM

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CONCORD — School officials have told the mother of two high school students that she may no longer deliver speeches on the front steps of Concord High School as students enter the building each morning.

Lizarda Urena's speeches were in the form of prayers and Bible readings. Superintendent Christine Rath said they won't be allowed to resume in the fall.

Urena, an anti-school-bullying activist, began arriving before school and praying after hearing reports that bullets had been found in a school washroom in February.

The Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation heard about the prayers and complained.

"We sent an open records request to the school district, asking them for copies of any meeting minutes or any sort of documents which gave this woman permission to pray on school property," said Rebecca Markert, a Freedom From Religion Foundation staff attorney.

A response came from the Concord School District within days.

"There is no document giving Ms. Urena permission to pray on school property," wrote Rath.

Upon hearing that the schools had not given the woman permission to pray at the school, the foundation argued that the issue was its failure to stop her.

"Urena positions herself at the top of the school's stairs and prays out loud," Markert said, adding that she "holds her hands out toward students entering the school building."

A lawyer for a group that defends religious speech says if the school district didn't initially object to Urena speaking at the Concord High front door, and later responded to the content of her speech, then it has engaged in illegal viewpoint discrimination.

"Students and community members that are allowed to come on campus and participate in a neutral thing are allowed to express religious viewpoints," said Matthew Sharp, general counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom. "The students know it's the mother and her own speech — something that the First Amendment protects — and that it is not the school mandating this woman to do it."

The New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union takes the position that in the conflict between freedom of speech and religious speech to students compelled to walk through the door to attend class, the superintendent did the right thing.

"There is a particular concern with regard to the mixing of religious messaging and education by a school being perceived as endorsing a particular religious message," said Devon Chaffee, an attorney and executive director of the NHCLU. "The real question here is whether the acquiescence of the school in permitting these prayers reaches the level of sponsored speech ... her presence does give the impression that the school condones and endorses her activity."

Concord's School Board President Kassandra Ardinger supports Rath's decision.

"To be fair to all the kids in the school, it is probably best for the principal to say that she shouldn't be speaking out like this and proselytizing on school grounds," Ardinger said. "The best mode of action was to tell her to cool it."

Rath could not be reached for comment.

School Board member Clint Cogswell said shutting off the prayers at the school door isn't a restriction on religious rights.

"We had, at one time, a group that came in the morning, and they'd have a prayer meeting and hold hands in a circle and nobody had a problem with that," Cogswell said. "I think if someone went on the steps and started reading the Gettysburg Address, we'd have to weigh the disruption it might cause."

It is unclear whether the school district will ultimately have to defend the ban in court.

Sharp of the pro-prayer Alliance Defending Freedom says the group hasn't decided whether to take up Urena's cause.

"What this mother is doing is carrying on one of the great American traditions," he said.

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