Portland Public Schools

Williamette Week finally does religion: the Grotto vs. Portland Public Schools

Williamette Week finally does religion: the Grotto vs. Portland Public Schools

During my 8+ years in Portland during my early newspaper career, there was a place in the far northeast quadrant of the city known as “the Grotto.” It was a pretty spot, where you could get great views of the Columbia River, Mt. St. Helens, some pretty gardens and pray, if you wanted to take advantage of the religious statues and the Lourdes-like chapel space carved out of a rock. It wasn’t considered a particularly evangelistic spot.

The other day, I noticed a piece in Williamette Week, an alternative Oregon newspaper about a fracas over the Grotto. I was amazed to see it in that in the six months I’ve been with GetReligion, I’d yet to see anything on religion in the Week. Even the Seattle Weekly (another alternate Pacific Northwest publication) has an occasional God piece, but not the Week. And this is what it said.

Is nothing sacred?
Choirs in Portland Public Schools have been told they can no longer participate in the Festival of Lights concert series at The Grotto because of its Catholic affiliation and the fact that the venue charges visitors a parking fee that supports its religious mission. That, and the additional wrinkle that last year the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation complained, says Jon Isaacs, a spokesman for PPS.
The Grotto is a Catholic shrine and botanical garden on 62 acres in the Madison South neighborhood of Northeast Portland that hosts choral performances around the holidays each year. PPS schools -- including Jackson and Lane middle schools and Wilson and Cleveland high schools -- are already scheduled to appear at the 2015 festival. So are several other local public schools, including ones from the Hillsboro, West Linn, Parkrose and David Douglas school districts.
But PPS will no longer participate, according to a Sept. 9 email from the central office to school administrators.

It turns out that the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Madison, Wisc.-based group that specializes in suing -- or threatening to sue -- anything affiliated with a public institution that has religious overtones, had sent the Portland Public Schools a letter nearly two years ago.

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