Safety Check: Woman Praying On N.H. School Steps Without Permission Could Have Put Students At Risk

“Religious Freedom” does not give anyone the right to put students in danger.

Imagine if a stranger showed up at your son or daughter’s school every day and tried to address the students as they entered the door.

Would you be concerned? Most parents I know definitely would be. That’s why most schools simply don’t allow this sort of thing. If you don’t have legitimate business at the school, you have no right to be there.

Yet, strangely, a New Hampshire woman named Lizarda Urena has been delivering sermons in the form of prayers and Bible readings on the front steps of Concord High School in New Hampshire recently.  

The New Hampshire Union Leader reported that Urena had commandeered the school steps as her pulpit in response to reports that bullets were found in a school bathroom in February.

Urena, who portrays herself as an activist opposed to bullying, decided all on her own to just show up at the school, making religious-themed statements in a spot where students enter the school each morning, the newspaper said. (The district, by the way, already has an anti-bullying policy.)

This unwanted activity caught the attention of the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, which asked the school to show proof that Urena had permission to be on the school grounds every day.

Turns out she had never received permission from any school official, making it an obvious security issue. Urena has since been told she can’t keep holding impromptu church services on the school steps.

Most public schools have strict policies about who can and can’t be on school property, and it’s rare for any school visitors not to be required to sign in at the principal’s office before doing anything on school grounds. It’s pretty disconcerting that Urena was in close proximity to so many students despite never having been cleared to be there in the first place.

But of course not everyone sees it that way. The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an Arizona-based Religious Right legal outfit founded by radio and TV preachers, said Urena is the victim of 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,” Matthew Sharp, general counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, told the Union Leader. “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.”

Sharp seems to have missed the obvious issue: Urena never should have been allowed to come to campus in the first place without permission.

The ADF may also be wrong on the First Amendment implications of this matter because Urena’s activities have raised church-state separation concerns.

The New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Devon Chaffee told the Union Leader: “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. 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.”

The ADF seems to think that this school is some sort of giant open forum where anyone can stand up and start lecturing, kind of like Speakers' Corner in London. Our public schools have never been treated that way. Can you imagine the chaos that might erupt if they were? The ADF has no case.

The Union Leader said it’s unclear if this matter will ever be brought before a judge as the ADF hasn’t made any decisions about whether or if it will get involved.

Ultimately, “religious freedom” is not the main issue here – it’s about school safety. Given the tragedy last year in Newtown, Conn., schools must be especially vigilant in protecting students.

And if a school like Concord High is treated as an open public forum (which is not what the school is designed to be), then it will become very difficult to monitor who has access to school property.

“Religious Freedom” does not give anyone the right to put students in danger, and for that reason, Urena was properly given the boot. It’s just too bad that it took a complaint before the school district took any action.