School board member pushes for PPS choirs in The Grotto

PPS choirs will not perform at The Grotto

PORTLAND, Ore. -- A member of the school board for Portland Public Schools wants to lead an effort to keep kids singing in The Grotto, despite a recent complaint that cancelled their choir performances.

The Grotto is a Catholic shrine in Northeast Portland and the venue for The Festival of Lights, one of the city's biggest holiday traditions.  Each year, choirs come from all over the world to perform during the festival.

"It's a beautiful space," said Maria Karlin, a professional singer for the last 15 years in Portland.  "The space is beautiful to sing in and it's one of the highlights of my singing year."

But this holiday season, students who are part of the choir for Portland Public Schools were told they could no longer perform at the event. 

"It's a shame," said Karlin.

"We received a complaint from an organization called Freedom from Religion, claiming that our Portland public students were attending a very religious event and they were objecting to that," said PPS spokeswoman Christine Miles.

Freedom from Religion is based in Wisconsin. They say the district's participation in the Festival of Lights could be viewed as an endorsement of a religion, in this case Catholicism, since performances are held in a religious space filled with religious icons.

"It's disappointing to us because we've never received a complaint about this so far," said Miles.

Now school board member Mike Rosen says he thinks he figured out a way to keep the performances going.  If the school board makes a resolution and then votes to approve it, PPS students should be able to continue their long tradition of singing in The Grotto.

So far, no other school board members have commented on the proposal, but many parents said they feel the district should never have cancelled the performances in the first place.  They complained that the PPS legal team acted too fast, since the Freedom of Religion group that made the initial complaint isn't even in Oregon.

The Grotto's Executive Director, Tom Fullmer, was disappointed when he was notified by PPS about the issue. 

"It's really unfortunate for those schools that can't participate. Their parents have, their grandparents have," he said.

While The Grotto may be a Catholic shrine and sanctuary, Fullmer said people of all different religions come from all over the world to perform at the site.

"They love performing here. Inside the Chapel of Mary, the acoustics are unbelievable," Fullmer said.

Karlin agrees that the acoustics are fantastic. To her and many others, singing at The Grotto isn't about religion. 

"It's about performing in a beautiful space for people that appreciate beautiful music," said Karlin.

Meantime, a Grant High School alum has also started an online petition to push for letting PPS choirs sing at The Grotto.  As of the morning of October 13, 2,823 people had signed the petition. 

Choirs from other school districts are still scheduled to perform at the Grotto.

KGW spoke with Freedom from Religion briefly over the phone.  They said they act on complaints, but couldn't say how many complaints they had received about Portland Public Schools' involvement in the Festival of Lights.

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