In what the Alliance Defending Freedom proclaims as a victory for religious liberty, Lizarda Urena, mother of two students at Concord High School in Concord, N.H., has regained the right to pray for the school's safety before classes. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which originally raised the issue, may contest this policy yet again.
"Many groups take a skewed view that say any interaction with religion at schools violates the Constitution, we know that's not true," Matt Sharp, legal counsel at the Alliance Defending Freedom, told The Christian Post in a Friday interview. "This is a huge victory for religious liberty," he said.
Sharp briefly outlined the story. After a handful of bullets were found in one of the toilets at the school, Urena felt God's calling to pray for the safety of kids and teachers. Following the nation-gripping stories of violence in Arvada, Colo., and Newtown, Conn. – not far from Concord – Urena took extra vigilance for her children's safety. When she asked the principal, he told her it would be fine.
Then enter the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a non-profit, educational organization based in Madison, Wis., dedicated to helping "those who are free from religion and are committed to the cherished principle of separation of state and church." Their June letter to the school district, Sharp explained, led the school to prohibit Urena from praying there.
"Because of the age of the school children, they are a captive audience, compelled to be there by mandatory attendance laws," Rebecca Markert, staff attorney for FFRF, told CP Friday. "This is a different situation than going to your city hall or your capital," she argued, because the children are impressionable and need protection.
Rather than just praying for safety, Urena was trying to proselytize the children, Markert alleged. "If she wanted to pray for the safety of the students, why can't she do it from home?"
"We believe her God can hear her from her home as well as he can hear her from the school steps," Markert quipped.
Citing Supreme Court cases Abington V. Schempp (1963), Lee v. Weisman (1992), and Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe (2000), Markert argued that public prayer like Urena's violates the Constitution.
But a recent letter for ADF turned the tide, and the school again welcomed Urena to pray before classes started, so long as she signed in and out, according to school rules.
"There's no legitimate basis for public school officials to shut down private, non-disruptive religious speech," Sharp rebutted. "Freedom From Religion misses a very important distinction between a school itself forcing students to pray and a school having a neutral policy that allows parents to participate in prayer," he explained.
So long as the school's policy is neutral, parents should be able to pray on school property as a private expression of their faith. In the Concord case, "there's no endorsement by the school, there's no evidence of the school requiring students to participate."
Sharp argued that the cases Markert cited referred to different incidents, where the school was actually sanctioning or requiring prayer from its students. "The cases cited by Freedom From Religion don't apply," he stated.
For legal arguments, he too cited cases. In Troxel v. Granville (2000), the Supreme Court defended the right of parents to make decisions "concerning the care, custody, and control of their children." In Bd. of Educ. of Westside Cmty. Schools v. Mergens (1990), it ruled "there is a crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment Clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses protect."
He also pointed to Daugherty v. Vanguard Charter Sch. Acad. (2000), which defended a Moms' Prayer Group during school hours, and WestfIeld High Sch. L.I.F.E. Club v. City of Westfield (2003), which defended the school's allowing "morning prayer at the flagpole."
Sharp argued that ADF merely holds to what the law says. "When the school creates a neutral forum, a neutral place, a neutral opportunity, the Supreme Court says you cannot prohibit religious liberty," he said.
He also pointed to a long American tradition of public prayer. The First Continental Congress opened with prayer in 1774, and while Benjamin Franklin – "the guy they hold up as evidence that America was not founded as a Christian Nation" – requested prayer at the Continental Congress, it was never brought to a vote. Nevertheless, "praying for God's protection and guidance is one of America's great traditions."