Portland Public Schools Orders Choirs to Stop Singing at the Grotto

Decision follows complaint from anti-religion group.

Is nothing sacred?

Choirs in Portland Public Schools have been told they can no longer participate in the Festival of Lights concert series at The Grotto because of its Catholic affiliation and the fact that the venue charges visitors a parking fee that supports its religious mission. That, and the additional wrinkle that last year the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation complained, says Jon Isaacs, a spokesman for PPS.

The Grotto is a Catholic shrine and botanical garden on 62 acres in the Madison South neighborhood of Northeast Portland that hosts choral performances around the holidays each year. PPS schools—including Jackson and Lane middle schools and Wilson and Cleveland high schools—are already scheduled to appear at the 2015 festival. So are several other local public schools, including ones from the Hillsboro, West Linn, Parkrose and David Douglas school districts.

But PPS will no longer participate, according to a Sept. 9 email from the central office to school administrators.

"Even if PPS singing groups perform songs from a variety of religious traditions, the strongly religious setting during the Festival of Lights could create a perception that the school is endorsing and supporting a particular religious tradition," PPS's general counsel, Jollee Patterson, wrote in the email.

Isaacs, the PPS spokesman, says the foundation's complaint came in December 2014—too late for the school district to make a decision about last year's choral performances at the Grotto.

Jill and Eric MacCartney, whose son sings with Cleveland's choir, say the decision makes no sense, even to their atheist friends.

"This is a performance opportunity," says Eric MacCartney. "It's a tradition. It's not a Catholic tradition. It's a Portland tradition."

Update on Wednesday at 3 p.m.: Andrew Seidel of the Freedom From Religion Foundation says his group actually contacted PPS in December 2013, not last year. Here's the letter.

"A couple of local families got in touch with us and said, Is this a problem?" says Seidel. "It is on two levels. They're taking students to a church and courts have said schools can't do that. The second reason is that the Grotto is making money off the backs of public school children."

Seidel says he's pleased PPS has decided to act, even if it took a while. "They've done the right thing," he says. "We appreciate it."

Meanwhile, the state championship for choir is scheduled for May. At George Fox University, a Christian university.

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