MIDDLETON, Wisc. — Organizers of what has been dubbed the weekly “Jesus Lunch” at a park adjacent to a Wisconsin high school are optimistic after the school district announced that it decided to end its lease of the land to settle controversy over the matter.
As previously reported, 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 last month, Principal Steve Plank and District Administrator Don Johnson sent a letter to parents stating that the lunch violates district policies, as it is led by adults who also do not check into the school as guests. They told reporters that the rules are applicable because the city leased the park to the district years ago.
“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.”
But the parents asserted that the park is public property and is consequently not subject to district requirements.
“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 said in a statement. “By law, the lease agreement between the city and the School District of Middleton does not privatize the park.”
Following continued controversy over the matter, Johnson recommended that the district cancel the lease with the city to bring resolution to the issue. He cited the city’s desire to stay out of court as a main reason for the move.
“City attorney Matt Fleming has indicated that the city believes the District’s authority to enforce school rules in Fireman’s Park is questionable, and that the city has no interest in litigation to resolve the ambiguities in the language,” he wrote in an email. “Further, discussions have indicated that even enhanced language that clarifies the issues in question may still result in legal expenses that are not in the best interests of any of the parties involved.”
On Tuesday, the Middleton City Council voted to rescind the lease.
“Jesus Lunch” organizers state that they are optimistic about the development, noting that their desire in the first place was to offer the lunch on public property so that it would be separate from the school.
“On behalf of the Jesus Lunch moms, we hope that today’s email from Superintendent Don Johnson will resolve the use of Fireman’s Park by the Jesus Lunch,” they said in a statement. “Our goal this entire process has been to offer a positive and safe environment for any student to hear a biblical truth. We are thankful for the support we have been receiving and appreciate the willingness of local decision makers to work with us towards an effective solution.”