Authorities to ban mom from praying outside high school

CONCORD, N.H. - A mother who prayed outside a public high school in Concord, N.H. every school day for several months, asking God to keep the students safe from gun violence, will not be allowed to continue the practice in the fall, after complaints from a national advocacy group.

Lizarda Urena, the mother of two students, began praying on the steps outside the high school auditorium of Concord High School 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.

After the Concord Monitor wrote a story about Urena in mid-May, a local resident contacted the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Madison, Wis. group that promotes the separation of church and state, to express concern about Urena's actions.

The group's attorney sent a letter to Superintendent Chris 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, according to the Monitor.

Rath declined to comment this week, and Principal Gene Connolly did not respond to a request for comment. Urena said administrators have not formally told her to stop yet, but she said Connolly has asked to speak with her, and she expects she'll be told to end the praying.

After the Monitor 's article ran in May, Urena said she was asked to stop praying aloud but was permitted to stay on school property. 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 when the school year resumes, 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.

In its letter to Rath, the Freedom From Religion Foundation contended that public schools should protect children from religious influences, instead of exposing students to them. It also said that religion should remain a private matter.

"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.

Connolly, the school principal, said previously that 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.

Pastor David Pinckney of the River of Grace Church in Concord called the decision to stop Urena from praying "absurd," because she is not harming anyone.

"Who is being hurt by a mom praying on the school step? Who?" he asked.

But Rabbi Robin Nafshi of Temple Beth Jacob in Concord said the only time discussing religion on school property would be appropriate would be during 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.

(Concord Monitor writer Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at kronayne@cmonitor.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com.)

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