PORTLAND — Choirs from area public schools have performed for decades in a holiday concert series at a local site familiar to the Christian community, but that will happen no longer for Portland Public Schools students.
As reported widely by local media, representatives of the Portland school district expressed their personal disappointment that the choirs will no longer perform at The Grotto, but said the district made the hard decision because it risked a legal battle otherwise.
The district acted because of a complaint from the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation, a watchdog group promoting separation of church and state.
Christine Miles, a spokesperson for the school district, said the complaint cited concerns with students performing at a religious venue that also charges visitors a parking fee supporting its religious mission. Miles said the district’s legal team reviewed the complaint and found the district could be at risk of legal action if choirs continued to participate.
Thus, she said, the sad decision was made to halt the choir activity at The Grotto. It was announced in a Sept. 9 email from the district office to school administrators.
“Even if PPS singing groups perform songs from a variety of religious traditions, the strongly religious setting during the (Grotto’s) Festival of Lights create a perception that the school is endorsing and supporting a particular religious tradition,” the school district general counsel, Jollee Patterson, wrote in the email.
Many Portland district students — including those from Jackson and Lane middle schools and Wilson and Cleveland hgih schools — were already scheduled to appear at the 2015 festival but now will not.
Although a Roman Catholic facility, The Grotto is also a popular site for visits by the evangelical Christian community. It is a shrine and botanical garden on 62 acres in northeast Portland that hosts choral performances around the holidays each year. The chapel where performances take place allows students to experience cathedral-quality, high-end acoustics.
Andrew Seidel of the Wisconsin foundation told Willamette Week newspaper that his group contacted the school district in December 2013 after a couple of local families communicated to the foundation their concerns over whether the school participation was appropriate.
Seidel said the foundation determined that it was not, because the public school students are being taken to a religious setting and also because the venue is gaining revenue because of the school choirs’ participation.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, the foundation’s co-president, told The Oregonian that student participation at an event held in a religious venue filled with religious icons shows endorsement for that faith and disregards non-believers.
Seidel and Gaylor both said the district made the right decision in barring the choirs from taking part in the festival.
Tom Fullmer, The Grotto’s executive director, told KGW-TV that he, too was disappointed by the district decision. He noted that three generations of students had sung over the years at the festival and all loved performing in the venue’s remarkable acoustics.
Gaylor said she didn’t know if the foundation had also received complaints about other schools peforming at The Grotto. At press time, other area school districts were still scheduled to send choirs to the festival, including the Hillsboro, West Linn, Parkrose and David Douglas districts, the newspaper stated.
In an editorial, The Oregonian described the Portland district decision as possibly “short sighted.” The newspaper called for a public discussion with school leaders on how to satisfy potential legal concerns while at the same time avoiding simply abandoning traditional educational opportunities for students that might raise questions.