Atheists celebrate 'victory' after children's choir cancelled at grotto

by Kelly Ledbetter, |
Christmas Festival of Lights at The Grotto, Portland, Oregon | The Grotto

PORTLAND, Ore. (Christian Examiner) – The Portland Public Schools board voted earlier this month to cancel a longstanding children's choral celebration after a letter it received from the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) caused it to question the tradition.

Local area schoolchildren sing holiday songs at the Christmas Festival of Lights at The Grotto, a Catholic outdoor shrine and sanctuary whose legendary acoustics have inspired singers and listeners for decades. But the atheist watchdog foundation pointed out the parking costs and religious location might violate the separation of church and state and put the school board at risk of a lawsuit.

The PPS board Chair Tom Koehler said rather than caving under the threat of litigation, the school district should add more multicultural events rather than eliminating them. "I think there's an overall tolerance that I think we need more of in our society," he said, according to the Portland Tribune.

But on Nov. 10, the board voted 4-3 to forbid Portland school choirs from performing there.

Koehler added the Constitution couldn't have been intended to keep children from singing at a festival. "I came to the firm conclusion that the framers of our Constitution did not have this in mind when they talked about the separation of church and state," he said. "Having our kids sing at The Grotto does not rise to that level."


Tom Fullmer, executive director of The Grotto, called himself disappointed by the school board's decision, according to Christian News Northwest. Fullmer pointed out three generations of students had celebrated the Festival of Lights and loved performing in the venue's remarkable acoustics.

Cheryl Kolbe, president of FFRF's Portland chapter, considered the board's decision a victory for those who might be offended by the children's singing.

"Certainly, no one can argue that it isn't nice for [students] to sing in a place with great acoustics," said Kolbe, according to KGW. "But it isn't fair to do the wrong thing just because it has some benefit."

Her foundation objected to the setting as well as the parking charges that funded a religious site. "Schools should not be giving the perception of promoting a particular religion," she said.

Jennifer O'Leary, a graduate of a PPS high school, was outspoken in her belief that the school board was overreacting. "I think that [the board] swung too far in the other direction," O'Leary said to KGW.

O'Leary began an online petition against the cancellation of the program and contacted The Grotto and area schools to try to find a solution that doesn't prevent the children from singing. "To take an opportunity away from everyone because some people have a problem with it... where do you stop?" she asked.


Kolbe said the letter that led to PPS's vote has also been sent to 25 other schools in the region. Fullmer said some of them have called The Grotto, unsure of whether to participate.

Some schools, however, are still planning to perform.

In response to an inquiry from KGW, the Hillsboro School District stated it "currently has no plans to restrict our choirs from performing at the Grotto this holiday season if they so choose. While we certainly understand and value the Establishment Clause, we try to strike a balance between strict interpretations of the law and providing our students with equitable access to a wide range of opportunities both in school and in our community."

Hillsboro added a solution that must surely satisfy any families' actual objections. "All students have the ability to opt out of performing at the The Grotto, or any other location that poses an affront to their personal beliefs, without penalty."