Portland Public Schools choirs will no longer perform at the Grotto’s Christmas Festival of Lights holiday concert following a complaint from a watchdog group.
The Grotto, a botanical garden and Catholic shrine, annually hosts a Christmas choral festival featuring choirs from churches, schools and other organizations. The Northeast Portland sanctuary celebrated the 25th anniversary of the festival in 2012.
Choirs from Lane Middle School and Grant, Cleveland, Wilson and Lincoln high schools were set to perform this year, according to district spokeswoman Christine Miles. She didn’t know exactly how many years district choirs had participated, but said one retired teacher told her it had been decades.
However a complaint from the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation has put a stop to the tradition. The foundation’s goal is to promote the separation of church and state, according to its website.
The district received a complaint from the foundation citing concerns with students performing at a religious venue and that admission is charged for the festival, Miles said. She said the district’s legal team reviewed the complaint and found that the district could be at risk of legal action if choirs continued to participate. The district informed staff of the decision last month.
“It was a sad decision for us to make and it was a hard decision,” Miles said. “If we know there is a legal risk and we don’t do anything, then that’s not the right thing to do.”
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, said student participation at a religious event shows endorsement for that faith and leaves out non-believers.
“Just because it’s a tradition doesn’t mean its legal,” Gaylor said. “Whole generations of students in Portland are being sent the message that it’s fine for public schools to promote Catholic events.”
Gaylor said she appreciated the district’s decision. She didn’t know if the foundation had also received complaints about other schools performing at The Grotto.
Choir directors are disappointed that their students will miss out on performing in The Grotto’s chapel, which is known for its high quality acoustics, Miles said. She said the district had never gotten a complaint about the festival before.
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