Portland, Oregon, public schools will no longer be performing during a holiday chorale concert at a Catholic shrine after the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter alerting the district to the First Amendment concern.
Although it took 20 months for Portland to respond, FFRF staff attorney Andrew Seidel is pleased that the school district finally agreed with FFRF. "They've done the right thing. We appreciate it."
The issue began back in December 2013 when local families alerted FFRF, a national state/church watchdog, to the numerous public school districts that scheduled students to perform during the "Festival of Lights" event at the Grotto, a Catholic shrine in northeast Portland that has hosted chorale concerts for more than 30 years.
According the Seidel, the issue is two-fold. "They're taking students to a church and courts have said schools can't do that," he said. "The second reason is that the Grotto is making money off the backs of public school children." The Grotto charges patrons for parking, money which goes to fund religious activities.
Jollee Patterson, general counsel for the Portland school district, sent an email to Portland school administrators last month alerting them to the decision. "Even if PPS (Portland Public Schools) 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."
In response to complaints, FFRF sent 24 school districts a letter on Dec. 30, 2013, pointing out the problems with school participation in the annual devotional concert at the Grotto.
"The stage is also flanked by two religious statues, one on either side," noted Seidel. "Murals depict different moments in the life of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the Via Matris or seven sorrows of Mary, and the massive center mural is named 'the Coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mother in heaven.' Visitors sit in pews marked with crosses and the building is crowned by a golden dome and cross. ... Any reasonable public school student would be justified in thinking that their school was endorsing the religious message."
Of the 24 school districts contacted by FFRF, it appears that five (Aberdeen, Bend-LaPine, Longview, Washougal, West Linn-Wilsonville) did not participate in the 2014 concert at the Grotto. FFRF plans to send out more letters soon to the districts that have not complied.
FFRF, with more than 23,000 nonreligious members nationwide, has about 650 members in Oregon, as well as an active FFRF Portland-area chapter.