Portland upholds ban on student religious holiday performances

Last night, the Portland Public Schools board made final its decision to ban schools from sending students to perform at the annual religious Festival of Lights at The Grotto, a Catholic shrine. The Freedom From Religion Foundation first alerted Portland and 24 other Oregon and Washington school districts in December 2013 to the constitutional problems with the performances.

The board decided in October to stop sending its students to the religious venue. At its Nov. 3 meeting, the board faced a proposal to reinstate the performances, but voted it down in a 4-3 decision.

FFRF's Portland chapter president, Cheryl Kolbe, represented FFRF and the Constitution at the meeting. Kolbe's comments reminded board members that they were not being asked to evaluate which opinion was more popular, to give their personal feelings on the issue, or to determine if some students enjoy and benefit from the concerts. "Good or bad acoustics are not criteria for evaluating compliance with the Establishment Clause," she said. "Schools must not participate in overtly religious events such as the Festival of Lights."

Although 3,500 people signed an online petition to get the district to change its mind, the board commissioned an outside legal analysis of the issue that appeared to raise concerns about a viable lawsuit for some of the board members.

"Just because we've had (a) tradition doesn't mean that the tradition has been correct in the past," said Director Julie Esparza Brown, who voted against the resolution. "It's time to look carefully at what we are supporting."

"Why would we want to place the burden of saying no on our children?" said board member Pam Knowles, who also voted the resolution down. "Our choirs have many opportunities to sing."

Board member Tom Koehler, who voted in favor of the resolution, reportedly "said he didn't feel that The Grotto performances violated the Constitution."

Koehler's feelings are irrelevant because, as Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel pointed out in his original letter, the Constitution is clear: "When schools ask students to attend school-sponsored events in churches, any reasonable student will think that the school is endorsing the religion of the church."

Grotto performances took place in a church sanctuary replete with religious iconography and were hosted in part by a friar. The venue also charged $9, which went straight into the church's coffers. In addition, The Grotto specifically requested that the music performed by the public schools be "seasonal and sacred," and preferred there be no "popularized selections which do not reflect on the sacred nature of The Grotto." Grotto representative Tom Fulmer said, "The choirs that come here are asked to sing music that represents the true meaning of Christmas."

FFRF applauds the Portland Public Schools board for making the right decision in pulling out of this Christian event, and thanks its Portland chapter and President Cheryl Kolbe for their efforts in bringing about this victory.

FFRF is a national state/church watchdog with more than 23,000 members, including 650 in Oregon and more than 1,000 in Washington.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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FFRF is a member of the Secular Coalition for America

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