Portland Public School leaders have told school choirs they can no longer perform at The Grotto during the Festival of Lights concert series, putting an end to the long-standing holiday tradition.
Although Portland public high school and middle school choirs have been singing at The Grotto during the holidays for almost thirty years, the choirs' participation in the events are now deemed to be a religious conflict.
According to Willamette Week, public schools may no longer take part in the concert series due to The Grotto's Catholic affiliation and because the venue charges visitors a parking fee that is used to fund its religion mission.
Yet it was the intervention of the atheist group Freedom From Religion Foundation that ultimately put an end to the festivities, Jon Isaacs, a spokesman for Portland Public Schools, told Willamette Week. The foundation's mission is to defend the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state.
The Grotto is a botanical garden and Catholic shrine in Northeast Portland that hosts choir performances during the holiday season every year. An email obtained by Willamette Week, from the central office of Portland Public Schools to school administrators on September 9 reveals that PPS choirs are now forbidden to sing at the location.
"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," Portland Public School's general counsel, Jollee Patterson, said in the email.
In December of 2013, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to Portland Public Schools which said, "A couple of local families got in touch with us and said, Is this a problem? 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."
Jill and Eric MacCartney, whose son sings in a public high school choir, told Willamette Week that the decision makes no sense - even to their atheist friends. "This is a performance opportunity," Eric said. "It's a tradition. It's not a Catholic tradition. It's a Portland tradition."
Photo credit: Willamette Week