MIDDLETON, Wis. – Members of the radical Freedom From Religion Foundation are determined to keep harassing the students of Middleton High School who participate in weekly “Jesus Lunches.”
For the second straight week protesters from the FFRF, a self-described pro-atheist group, showed up at Fireman’s Park in Middleton to antagonize students who accept the free lunch and Christian discussion offered by a group of local mothers.
This week the FFRF went even further – offering free pizza to students who are willing to join their anti-Christian demonstration.
“A generous Middleton FFRF member has provided a donation toward providing pizza for the protesting students,” FFRF co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor was quoted as saying in a post on the group’s website.
“As noted last week, we don’t think any adults, whether missionaries or atheists, should be allowed to move in upon what is essentially a captive audience of students. But if the ‘Jesus Lunches’ aren’t going to be stopped, the Freedom From Religion Foundation plans to be there too, providing some balance – and some fuel to the protesters.”
The Jesus Lunches, which have been ongoing for several years on Tuesdays, became controversial in recent months when hundreds of students started attending.
The Middleton-Cross Plains school district tried to convince the organizers to stop the lunches. Two weeks ago school officials even blocked off the parking lot at Fireman’s Park and confronted the mothers when they arrived with food.
The organizers parked legally along the street, ignored the school officials and set up the lunch, anyway.
School officials claim they have a legal right to block the lunch because the school district leases Fireman’s Park from the city of Middleton during school hours.
But there is nothing in the school’s lease that prevents the public from using the park during that time. The city police department has reportedly declined requests from the school district to stop the Jesus Lunches.
The schools’ inability to bully the parents who provide the lunches has frustrated the FFRF.
“The school leases Firemen’s Park, which abuts the back entrance and contains a pavilion,” the FFRF website post said. “But the city has argued that an ambiguity in the lease permits the evangelists to set up shop during school hours. FFRF says the city should clarify that the school has exclusive use of the park during the school day, or amend the lease.”
The FFRF and some students began protesting the lunches last week, resulting in loud shouting matches between youngsters on both sides.
In a subsequent letter to the Middleton City Council, FFRF attorney Ryan Jayne argued that the discord among students was a good reason to stop the event from happening. He ignored the obvious fact that there would be no arguments if the protesters would leave the children alone to eat and worship as they choose.
Jayne’s letter also maintained that the Jesus Lunches are harmful to students who decline to participate.
“The Jesus Lunch turns the majority into ‘insiders’ and the minority into ‘outsiders,’” Jayne’s letter said.
That’s an absurd claim, since the vast majority of Middleton students do not participate in the lunches, according to Phillip Stamman, an attorney representing the mothers who host the event.
According to estimates, a maximum of 400 to 500 students have attended the Jesus Lunches.
“There are around 1,500 students (in the high school), if not more,” Stamman told EAGnews. “Nobody is forcing anybody to go.”
Tuesday’s lunch was relatively peaceful compared to the week before, when the protesters first showed up, Stamman said.
Some of the more aggressive protesters wandered into the park pavilion where the meal is served, but there were no serious confrontations, he said.
“It was still a little stressful,” Stamman said. “I’m not exactly sure who did walk in the pavilion. It’s hard to tell (other protesters) from the Freedom From Religion group. Some walked in with protest signs and walked around, and others stayed outside the pavilion. But overall it was peaceful and improved from last week.”
Problems could still be on the horizon for the Jesus Lunches, according to Stamman. That’s because the organizers will have to re-apply for their permit to use the park pavilion before the fall semester, he said.
While the school district has been quiet on the issue in recent weeks, Stamman said he wouldn’t be surprised if district officials register their objections during the permit process.
“I think the school district has taken a step back,” Stamman said. “They want to enforce (banning the lunches) but have no legal right to enforce it. My guess is that they will try to keep the Jesus Lunches from having a permit. We could run into problems if (the city) denies the application.”
Until then, the lunches will go on as scheduled, despite the stress caused by protesters, Stamman said.
“The mothers are standing firm and strong,” he said. “Obviously it’s been stressful for them, but they know it’s the right thing to do and they’re going to continue serving the lunches.”