A choir restricted from performing at The Grotto

By Caroline Diamond, Reporter

After nearly 30 years of dedicated performance, Cleveland’s choirs, along with those of many other PPS schools, have been forbidden from singing at the Grotto’s annual Festival of Lights due to blurred lines between church and state.

The Grotto is a shrine located in NE Portland. It represents a place of Catholic worship and extends into a botanical garden. From Friday after Thanksgiving until Dec. 30, the Grotto displays a Christmas Festival of Lights, the largest choral festival in the world. One hundred and sixty choirs perform throughout the festival, for love of the building’s acoustics, audience, and scenery, Cleveland’s Dettes, A Choir and Dares included.

However, after Cleveland’s performance last year, The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Wisconsin, complained to the PPS school district. Because there is a parking fee at The Grotto, parents of choir participants and student buses are technically funding the church.

Without consulting teachers, students, or parents, the school district made an executive decision to disallow the performance of all PPS schools at The Grotto. After the decision, an email was sent to the choir department explaining, “While our choirs perform songs from a variety of religious and non-religious tradition, the setting is very religious, focused on just one religion and there is an entrance fee that benefits a religious organization.”

Jollee Patterson, the district attorney, based her settlement on three aspects. First, the issue is a contradiction to the First Amendment by having a public organization finance a church. Secondly, in the Grotto’s performance directions, all music sung must be church appropriate, implying that music must be from religious backgrounds. And lastly, the iconography within the chapel could be offensive or make students uncomfortable. Patterson explained that if this were to be tried in a court of law, the district could be sued regarding these details.

“I’m disappointed. It’s taking away from our performance schedule, and I’m disappointed that students and parents and the music teachers weren’t involved in the decision,” Diana Rowey, Cleveland’s choir director, said. After the original news concerning the district’s decision was broken via email, the school board held a vote Nov. 3 to overturn the district administration decision. However, the resolution to let the choir students sing at The Grotto failed with four no votes to three yes votes.

In an interview with Fox News, Simon Brown, a Cleveland junior and singer said, “To me, it’s a little bit aggravating because it has been a tradition and everybody looks forward to going to sing there every year because it is an amazing experience.”

Rowey is hopeful that in the future Cleveland’s choir can perform again at The Grotto, but as of now PPS schools are officially banned from this event.