MIDDLETON, Wisc. — Controversy is stirring as officials with a Wisconsin school district have asked parents and students to discontinue their weekly “Jesus Lunch” at an adjacent park over their belief that the property where the event is held belongs to the district.
The “Jesus Lunch” began in 2014 as the parents of several students at Middleton High School decided to provide a free lunch in Fireman’s Park, which is adjacent to the school grounds. Students discuss a Bible topic during the lunch and attendance is voluntary.
According to reports, the weekly event began with 40 students attending and now has grown to 400 two years later.
But on Tuesday, Principal Steve Plank and District Administrator Don Johnson sent a letter to parents stating that the lunch violates district policy because it is allegedly led by adults, who also do not check in as guests at the school, and because food safety standards are not being met.
“Some students feel excluded or left out,” Plank told local television station WKOW. “We have students of different faiths—Muslim students or Hindu students or Jewish students—who feel like this is happening and it’s not for them. We’ve had some students that leave school early on those days; [they] maybe feel intimidated by people coming back in afterward.”
Parents assert that the park is public property and is consequently not subject to district requirements. They also note that they have a permit from the city. But the district says that the city leased the park to them years ago and therefore the rules are applicable.
“The parents contend that it is their First Amendment right to provide free food and hold a religiously oriented event on this property during school hours,” the letter stated. “The district believes that we have jurisdiction of this leased property, which is part of our campus.”
“The question here is not us being in opposition to the school, but rather that we have a right to be in Fireman’s Park. Although the school district contends that it is school grounds because they have a lease, the public still has a right to use the park during school hours,” lunch organizers also said in a statement. “By law, the lease agreement between the city and the School District of Middleton does not privatize the park.”
One student who opposes the event launched a petition stating that parents should be forced to follow district guidelines. But another student then launched a petition in favor of the lunch, declaring that it should be allowed to continue.
The parent organizers state that they are not backing down and have obtained legal representation. The district has likewise contacted its attorneys, who are looking into whether or not the district has jurisdiction to impose its policies on the gathering.
“The district is currently asking our legal counsel to communicate and consult with the legal counsel of the Jesus Lunch organizers,” it said in an email on Friday. “The question at hand is whether or not [the district] has responsibility for the supervision of Fireman’s Park during school hours based on our 16-year lease with the City of Middleton.”
“To be clear, [the district] is not interested in litigation, and is committed to working collaboratively to find a solution that meets the needs of all parties,” the district continued. “We are interested in thoughtful and respectful dialogue. We do not intend to interfere with the Jesus Lunch, and we will continue to reach out to organizers to find an amicable resolution in the near future in the best interests of all of our students.”