MIDDLETON, Wisc. (Christian Examiner) – A Wisconsin school district is asking a group of parents who meet with high school students in a public park for a lunch-hour Bible discussion to stop the "Jesus lunch," CBS affiliate WISC-TV has reported.
Earlier this week, Middleton High School Principal Steve Plank and Middleton-Cross Plains District Administrator Don Johnson sent a letter to the parents claiming the lunchtime religious discussion is a violation of school policy on numerous levels, among them the use of school facilities for a religious club during school hours, the presence of unauthorized visitors to the campus, and food safety regulations.
In the letter, which claims the district is "in no way interested in opposing religious practice in otherwise legal circumstances," parent organizers of the voluntary student gathering are said to be creating an unsafe environment for the students.
According to school and district officials, the lunch began on a "very small scale" with a handful of parents bringing sandwiches to their own children, meeting them outside of the school and discussing the Christian faith over the lunch hour. The gathering then expanded to students not-related to the parents, who still provided the food and gave away Bibles, as well.
Eventually, the letter explained, the gathering – which took on the name "Jesus Lunch" – grew too large and the meeting moved off campus. The district claims this would have been allowable "but would have required the school administration to inform parents of any incentivizing of students to eat a free lunch in exchange for attendance." It also claimed that the provision of large quantities of food called into question whether the event was actually led by students.
The lunch meeting finally settled at Fireman's Park, adjacent to the school campus, when the parents reserved the park for weekly use in September 2015. According to the city's fee structure, residents can reserve pavilions in the park for $110.
Now, however, the school district claims the park is governed by its rules during school hours since it leases the grounds. A sign at the entrance to the park also makes the claim.
Mike Davis, Middleton's city administrator, told Christian Examiner the school district began discussion about leasing the park in 1999 when the expansion of the high school was being considered. The disctrict, Davis said, wanted to be able to enforce its rules on smoking, alcohol and drug abuse – the only three provisions specifically mentioned in a lease singed in 2000 – during the hours 7 a.m.-5 p.m. It was assumed, however, that other school rules could also be enforced.
Davis said the city was also interested in maintaining the public park as a place that could be used by private citizens, another provision of the lease. Until now, there has been a "peaceful coexistence" between the park's users and the school, but Davis acknowledged the current situation has created a "conflict point" that will have to be resolved. Davis said he plans to meet with the city council and the city's attorney in the near future to seek a solution.
The school district believes it has the answer already because, it claims, the leased park is "part of our property" and no religious (or political) gathering should be held there. That would also presumably apply even to religious or political gatherings unrelated to students during school hours.
"Just two weeks ago, [Principal] Steve Plank learned that the parents intended to continue the lunches starting today. We have been working actively with city officials to make sure we are on the same page with our understanding of this situation and our lease of Fireman's Park. Steve Plank again asked the parents to cancel the event earlier this week in a telephone conversation that was to precede a scheduled meeting. The response was that they would not respect this request, and that they intended to move forward," the letter to parents said.
"Instead of acknowledging and abiding by the District's policies, the parents have threatened legal action against the District. The District disagrees with this position, and will continue its efforts to enforce its health, safety and welfare policies for events involving students," the letter also said.
"We believe that religious or political events do not have a place in our school 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 resolution," Plank and Johnson concluded.
The "Jesus Lunch" reportedly began with less than 40 students but has grown to 10 times that amount – to a fourth of the student population of Middleton High School. The gathering has retained an attorney and is exploring how to proceed.
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"Just because a public entity leases to a private organization or a private citizen, that public park does not become a private entity, so the First Amendment Right still applies," Phillip Stamman, an attorney for the parents, told ABC-affiliate WKOW.
A change.org petition has been launched by those who want the lunchtime gathering to continue. The information accompanying the petition claims the group has no desire to oppose the school, but wants to exercise its right to be in 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. By law, the lease agreement between the city and the School District of Middleton does not privatize the park. The City of Middleton has sent us a letter this week and acknowledged our rental agreement of the pavilion at Fireman's Park," the statement accompanying the petition reads.
It also includes a purpose statement, which claims the lunch provides "food for the body, nutrition for the soul." Students who attend the lunch are not required to listen to the message, presented in 3-5 minutes each time the gathering occurs. The event has grown solely as the result of student-to-student invitations, organizers said.