If you thought prayer was banned in schools, think again—at least on Sundays.
At least eight religious groups rent Portland Public Schools facilities on a weekly basis, bringing in nearly $170,000 annually for the district, about one-sixth of its total facility rental income and a small fraction of its overall budget of about $405 million.
District spokesman Matt Shelby says any civic group can rent auditoriums, cafeterias and classrooms when schools are unoccupied. So far that hasn't meant anything too far out, though if a hypothetical group — say Nazis for Jesus — existed, PPS chief counsel Jollee Patterson says the district would handle the request on a case-by-case basis.
"We would do our very best to make sure nothing inappropriate is going on in our facility,'' Patterson says. "But the First Amendment puts some constraints on our ability to do that."
Among the renters: Bridge Church of God, a small Pentecostal group that pays $24,000 a year to rent the auditorium and cafeteria at Lent Elementary in outer Southeast Portland. And Portland Center for Self-Realization, led by devotees of Paramahansa Yogananda, which pays $1,600 a year to rent the parking lot at Vestal Elementary on Northeast 82nd Avenue.
The district's most lucrative church rental is at Franklin High School. Imago Dei, an evangelical group, draws 1,500 people each Sunday when it takes over Franklin's auditorium, library, gymnasium, classrooms and parking lot. The rent totals nearly $120,000 a year. Imago Dei also beefed up the auditorium's sound system and lets the school use its equipment.
Franklin is named for one of America's most famous deists, Ben Franklin. But chief Imago Dei pastor Rick McKinley says it can still be an odd fit—congregants listen to discussions of Isaiah while sitting in wooden seats with "fuck" carved in them.
Imago Dei moved to Franklin in April 2006 after it outgrew the Old Laurelhurst Church. McKinley, 37, lays out the synergy: School auditoriums are mostly empty Sunday mornings. Churches tend to sit unused most of the week. Why not turn schools into weekend churches and help the district financially?
Driven by parental objections to the gay-unfriendly policies of groups ranging from the military to the Boy Scouts, PPS has barred all groups from recruiting students on school grounds. And yet it rents to church groups like Imago Dei that regard homosexuality as a violation of God's law.
Not the same thing, says Shelby. The district limits access to students, but except for limits on alcohol, gambling, drugs and weapons, the buildings are equally open to any group.
Basic Rights Oregon spokeswoman Melissa Chernaik says her group wasn't aware of the district's religious rentals and had no immediate comment. But others sensitive to violations of church-state separation say the rentals are OK if all groups have an equal chance.
"If the schools are renting facilities, they may not discriminate against religious institutions," says Oregon ACLU executive director David Fidanque.
"They're publicly owned community buildings," adds the district's Shelby. "If you look at it in the grand scheme of things, they're not ours."