MIDDLETON, Wisc. — Concerns are being raised over the possibility that a proposal to eliminate reservations for a pavilion in a public park in Wisconsin is actually a means of caving in to a prominent atheist activist group that has taken issue with a weekly “Jesus Lunch” gathering at a local high school.
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 in April, 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.”
However, 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, and the Middleton City Council voted to rescind the lease.
Jesus Lunch organizers were cautiously optimistic about the development, but months later are now are expressing concern through their attorney as City Administration Mike Davis has recommended to do away with reservations for the pavilion at Fireman’s Park.
“This is very disappointing. If there is no significant demand (for use of the park pavilion), why would you discourage someone from renting it?” attorney Phillip Stamman told EAG News. “It’s disappointing for citizens, from a free speech perspective, and it’s probably illegal, too.”
He opined that the proposal might have been presented to assuage the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), which literally went to the location at one point to protest. Making the pavilion first come, first serve means that the Jesus Lunch gathering could be pushed out if FFRF arrives first and spitefully occupies the space.
“The city can put neutral restrictions on a public park. But it’s not allowed to single out an organization because it doesn’t like their speech,” Stamman said. “There’s no question this is happening right now. This is about a group of citizens who want to put out a message about Jesus, and (city officials) are only considering this ordinance because they don’t want that message.”
Davis says that he proposed the policy change to “show that the city is not giving preferential treatment to any single group that wants to use the large pavilion at Fireman’s Park.”
If reservations are no longer required, the move could nullify “Jesus Lunch’s” dibs on the space for the next year, as organizers normally contract with the city to reserve the pavilion for a full year.
The city attorney has reportedly expressed his disagreement with the policy change out of concern of a lawsuit.