October 2015

Portland Public Schools Made the Right Decision When It Withdrew From Christmas Festival

The Grotto’s “Christmas Festival of Lights” was an inappropriate event for public school choirs

We commend the Portland Public Schools (PPS) decision to withdraw students from the “Christmas Festival of Lights.” It is a decision consistent with the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which mandates that the government neither promote nor inhibit a particular religion.

In the United States, we enjoy the freedom to practice any religion – or no religion at all. Our country's founders, who were of different religious backgrounds themselves, knew the best way to protect religious liberty was to keep the government out of religion. So they created the First Amendment - to guarantee the separation of church and state. Oregon’s state constitution requires this separation, as well.

A strong commitment to the separation of church and state is not anti-religion. In fact, it may be the best guarantee that each individual has the right to practice their own religion, without coercion, hostility or violence. In other words, keeping religion out of the hands of the government is the best way to ensure continued religious freedom and religious harmony.

The “Christmas Festival of Lights” is a celebration of Christianity in a Catholic shrine. It features religious music and imagery that is explicitly Christian, including a collection of nativity scenes and extensive fiber-optic displays focusing on the story of the birth of Christ. In addition, through a ten-dollar admission price, the event generates revenue for the Grotto, which is a religious institution.

Portland Public Schools, as a branch of Oregon’s government, must maintain a neutral position toward religion. When public school choir classes participate in events which endorse a particular religion, neutrality is lost. Because participation in the Christmas Festival of Lights would endorse Catholicism and Christianity, PPS properly decided to end its participation in the event.

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Indigenous Peoples’ Day Must Be More Than Symbolic

By Legal Director Mat dos Santos

Today I’m especially proud to live in Portland, which is celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day for the first time. On Wednesday, October 8, 2015, through a unanimous vote by the city council, Portland abandoned Columbus Day for Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Portland joins a handful of U.S. cities to make this change. While symbolic, this is an important shift in policy away from erasing Native tradition to celebrating it.

Native Americans throughout the U.S. routinely find themselves faced with an impossible choice: celebrate Native traditions in Native spaces or let Native traditions die while participating in majority culture. This forced choice is a legacy of genocide and ongoing social depredation perpetuated against indigenous people.

Today, this cultural annihilation is continued through innocuous institutional rules and regulations that may seem harmless, but which have a disparate impact on Native people and traditions. These rules and regulations discriminate against Native people because the needs of Natives were not considered in the policy making process. An example of such a rule can be found in Oregon’s institutions of higher education; not a single one allows Native students to practice traditional smudging rituals in their living spaces.

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