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. We’ve written about them here, here and here, for starters.

It sounds like PPS ignored it for at least a year, then mulled over the missive and finally forbade its students to sing at the venue this year.

It is enlightening reading the comments section, which has a lot of sentiments from Portlanders who don’t see why a religious statue might threaten someone’s atheism. And Portland (Oregon as well) is not exactly noted for its high church attendance.

I have few complaints about the story, which ends with the delicious factoid that next spring’s state choir championship will be at George Fox University, a Quaker institution in Newberg, Ore. Will the FFRF have a problem with that? Also, why is no one from the Grotto itself (its board of directors is listed on the site) nor the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Portland quoted for this story?

And it’s so short. There’s so much online about the Freedom From Religion folks. Why not share some of that?

Also, the FFRF folks say that by simply charging attendees a parking fee, students are being made to support a religious institution. Really? Ever try to keep up a garden that gets 300,000 visitors a year? That does take money. I’m guessing that students perform there because of the acoustics of the Grotto itself. I notice they’re not singing at the International Rose Test Garden (a huge place on the opposite side of the city that charges nothing). Why? Probably it's the acoustics.

The story wasn’t bad, but it does look a bit thrown together, which is odd for a weekly publication where reporters have more time to write. So much more could have been done with, especially considering that Williamette Week can come up with huge investigative pieces if it wants to. It didn’t win a Pulitzer for short stuff.

Still, it’s a beginning. And if anyone from WW is reading this, please try more religion reporting. The city is full of great religion stories and the Oregonian just added a religion specialist to the staff. You can too.

Photos from thegrotto.org

Please respect our Commenting Policy