MIDDLETON, Wis. – Middleton-Cross Plains school district officials are doing more than urging parents to stop serving “Jesus Lunches” to high school students at a public park every Tuesday.
They have been physically trying to block the parents from using the park.
School officials set up cones to block parents from using the parking lot at Fireman’s Park, near Middleton High School, on Tuesday, according to Phil Stamman, an attorney who is representing the mothers involved with the Jesus Lunch program.
Donald Johnson, the superintendent of the Middleton-Cross Plains district, was among the school officials who tried to order the parents from using the park, Stamman said.
The parents ignored school officials’ orders to turn away, according to Stamman. They parked along the street, walked into the park and set up the food for the lunch, anyway, he said.
“They coned up the parking lot, waited there and confronted my clients and told them to leave,” Stamman said. “(The parents) responded how I recommended. They walked right past them. The superintendent repeatedly tried to confront them. He was the first one. But they just moved on.”
The school district claims it has jurisdiction over the city-owned park because it leases it from the city during school hours. But that lease does not prevent citizens from entering or using the park for any legal reason, according to Stamman.
“Case law is very clear about that,” Stamman said. “The public park can be leased to another public entity, but it’s a non-exclusive lease. It’s not fenced off and it’s still open to the public. Because of that the laws associated with the First Amendment still apply.
“Nobody else was being told not to walk into the park.”
Beth Williams, one of the organizers of the student lunches, issued a statement defending her group’s right to use the park.
“Fireman’s Park – a public park owned by the city of Middleton – remains accessible to everyone in the public for the purposes of assembly and free speech,” the statement said, according to Madison.com. “By law, the lease agreement between the city and the school district of Middleton does not privatize the park.”
School district officials could not be reached for comment.
The weekly lunches, involving parents meeting with students to eat, discuss their Christian faith and distribute Bibles, have been going on for years. It started on the high school campus with a handful of students meeting their mothers for lunch, but became much bigger over the past few years and moved off campus, eventually to Fireman’s Park, according to media reports.
“In the spring of 2014 … 10 students invited their friends to a free lunch and a brief spiritual talk in the open air pavilion across from the high school,” according to AllGodsPeople.com. “The group meets for eight weeks in the fall, and eight weeks in the spring. The first week 40 students showed up, then 70, the next week,100 students came. The five moms make all the meals, set the tables, arrange for the speakers and clean up, every week.
“Last fall the word had spread (pun intended) and the first week 200 kids showed up, then 300, then 400-450 every week! That represents 25% of the Middleton High School student body, meeting every week for a free hot lunch and listening to a Christian message.”
School district officials recently sent a letter to parents, expressing concerns about the event and urging parents to end it.
The letter said school officials “believe that religious or political events do not have a place in our schools or on our campus, except when sponsored by a student group in accordance with our rules, which require prior approval.
“In addition, many students have conveyed to us their concern about a group offering free food to incentivize participation in a religious event on campus. The result of which has a divisive impact on our learning community. As such, we will continue to work with the parent group to find an amicable solution.”
The school district has also expressed concern about the quality of the food being served to students, but Stammen rejected that argument.
“Their true motivation is clear – it’s the religious speech (they object to),” said Stamman, who added that school officials have sought the help of local police to evict the parents, but they have declined to intervene. “Students are free to go a local gas station to buy food, a friend’s house, McDonalds. It’s not an issue with food. The problem is the religious message and the fact that it’s becoming too effective.”
Stamman said the parents could take legal action to protect their right to use the park, serve the lunches and speak freely about their religious faith.
“I’ve been talking to a lawyer for the city and my clients and the Alliance Defending Freedom,” he said. “We’re reviewing our options. We have not decided how to move forward yet.”