At least two members of the Portland School Board are questioning Portland Public Schools' decision to ban school choirs from singing at the Grotto's annual Festival of Lights.
As WW first reported last week, PPS recently decided school choirs could no longer perform at the Christmastime celebration because the Grotto is a Catholic shrine and a Wisconsin-based atheist organization complained that PPS's participation in the festival endorsed religion—in violation of the U.S. Constitution. Cleveland, Wilson and Grant high schools, as well as several PPS middle schools, have traditionally performed evening concerts at the Grotto as part of the annual ritual.
Tom Koehler, chairman of the school board, says he's not sure the board should accept staffers' legal analysis as the final word. The district's decision, he says, is based on the risk that the Freedom From Religion Foundation would sue PPS. But he thinks PPS could mount a defense, perhaps even using members of PPS schools' top-notch Constitution debate teams.
"How does singing at the Grotto undermine the Constitution?" he asks. "I personally don't get the connection."
Mike Rosen, a second board member, agrees with Koehler. Rosen says he has serious questions about staffers' decision. "I think the logic is significantly flawed," he says.
But Koehler and Rosen will have to get two more board members to side with them if they want to bring a vote to overturn the decision.
Paul Anthony, one of the new members of the seven-person board, says he doesn't want to reverse course. "I feel very badly for the kids," he says, "but I think staff made the right decision."
Steve Buel, who's long been willing to offer a dissenting opinion on the board, says he hasn't made up his mind.
Meanwhile, a petition online asking the school district to reconsider has more than 2,500 supporters.