MIDDLETON, Wis. – The parents and students who gather on Tuesdays in a public park for “Jesus Lunches” have become targets of weekly harassment.
Last week, officials from the Middleton-Cross Plains school district, led by Superintendent Donald Johnson, blocked off the parking lot at Fireman’s Park, where the parents and students meet, and tried to dissuade the parents from hosting the lunch. (See related story here.)
The parents walked past them and the lunch went on, as planned.
On Tuesday numerous protesters, including several students and officials from the Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, showed up to protest while the parents and children tried to assemble in peace.
The result was a loud shouting match between the Christian students and protesters. The chaotic scene attracted media attention and intensified the growing debate over the weekly event.
According to the MacIver News Service (MNS), “tensions were high as students yelled and interrupted each other.”
“I think it was very stressful (on the Jesus Lunch participants),” Phillip Stamman, an attorney representing the mothers who organize the lunches, told EAGnews. “The good thing is that the publicity is bringing more kids into it, but at the same time it’s made it more stressful because of the protesters chanting and the media there.
“This is supposed to be a quiet lunch, with parents and kids sharing a short Christian message. They don’t want this attention. They’re not looking for it.”
The Jesus Lunches began in 2014, with a small group of mothers meeting with their children on campus for lunch and faith-based discussion. The event eventually moved off campus, and settled in Fisherman’s Park near Middleton High School, last fall.
The lunches, which are provided free to all participating students, have become increasingly popular over the current school year, drawing hundreds of kids from the nearby high school.
School officials have asked the parents to move the lunches out of Fireman’s Park. The school district has a lease on the city-owned park during school hours, and claims it has the right to regulate activities there.
But Stamman, the attorney who represents the mothers, argues that the school has a “non-exclusive” lease to use the park, which does not prevent citizens from entering and exercising their First Amendment right to free speech.
Stamman said the city of Middleton, which owns the park, has made no effort to stop the Jesus Lunches. He also said school administrators have stopped trying to interfere with the lunches – but he’s not sure that will last.
“I don’t think they’re done,” Stamman said. “They may try to find another way, like maybe trying to change their lease on the park to make it seem more exclusive. They may try some other means down the road. They have not given up.”
While school officials did not try to interfere with the lunch on Tuesday, others took their place.
Among them were officials from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a pro-atheist, anti-Christian legal group that pressures school districts and municipalities around the nation to remove references to Christianity.
The FFRF has contacted the Middleton-Cross Plains district, asking school officials to stop the Jesus Lunches.
FFRF officials say their mission is to enforce the constitutional separation of church and state and advocate for atheists, but their statements and published materials are openly hostile and antagonistic toward Christians.
“Parents should know, when they send their kids to school, that they are not going to be preached at by other adults luring them with food,” FFRF attorney Ryan Jaye told the MNS. “I do think the administration should do something to make sure this is not a weekly event.”
Stamman said he was surprised that the FFRF – which takes full advantage of its free speech rights to aggressively challenge Christianity – would oppose the exercise of free speech in a public park.
“Public parks are the quintessential forums for free speech,” he said. “You would think we could all agree on that.
“When Mother Theresa handed out food and told people that Jesus loved them, that was acceptable. But now some people think the separation of church and state means that (Christian gatherings) have to be done in a church.”
Some protesters – including some students and several Jewish rabbis – claimed the lunches have prompted in-school harassment of non-Christian students and others who choose not to attend.
“Do you know kids are being harassed and intimidated because they don’t agree to go to the Jesus lunches?” one unidentified rabbi told an organizer of the lunch on a video recorded by MNS. “Do you think that this is an OK thing to happen? Do you think Jesus would approve of you coming here and hurting these kids?”
Stamman said only a small percentage of students openly oppose the lunches.
Several student participants told MNS that the lunches were never controversial until administrators and outside groups started openly opposing them.
“All last year this was happening and nobody said anything about it,” one student said.
“You don’t have to be here if you don’t like it,” another said.
In the meantime, Stamman said the lunches will continue, despite the unwanted chaos surrounding them.
“They’re going to keep having the meetings and just loving kids,” he said. “They’re not going to give up and leave. The kids love it and want it to continue.”