Atheists muscle in on 'Jesus Lunch' at public park

by Gregory Tomlin, |
Students protest outside of a pavilion where the student- and parent-led "Jesus Lunch" takes place in Fireman's Park in Middleton, Wisc. The park is next to Middleton High School and the district leases the park during school hours. The city, however, has also rented space to the group of parents, creating competing claims to religious liberty and separation of church and state. | FFRF/Facebook

MIDDLETON, Wisc. (Christian Examiner) – Protestors descended on a student- and parent-led lunchtime Bible discussion in a public park next to a Wisconsin high school Tuesday in an effort to stop the assembly.

For the first time since the event adjacent to Middleton High School began in Fireman's Park in 2014, the "Jesus Lunch" was met with calls for "separation of church and state" and shouts of protest about white Christians being divisive at the school.

Those students who protested, the Wisconsin State Journal claimed, were supported by the atheist Freedom from Religion Foundation (though the paper referred to FFRF as "secular").

FFRF said it was invited to the gathering by a student at the school who claims to be Christian, but who reportedly feels like the event violates the Constitution. According to FFRF, the organizers of the "Jesus Lunch" provide lunch, hand out Bibles and engage in proselytization, "all contrary to the wishes of the Midldeton-Cross Plains School District."

By law, the lease agreement between the city and the School District of Middleton does not privatize the park. Christian parents who provide a free lunch and share their religious beliefs with park visitors retain their First Amendment rights to do so, notwithstanding unfounded protests from the school district.

"In doing so, the parents are violating a city agreement that gives the district the right to decide use of the park," FFRF said in a statement.

City administrators aren't even sure that is true.

Christian Examiner spoke with Middleton's city administrator, Mike Davis, last week and in discussions about the school district's lease of the park, signed in 2000, Davis said the "peaceful coexistence" of the two groups had ended in a point of conflict the city was unsure how to resolve.

While the lease specifically mentions the school's right to apply its no drinking, no smoking and no drug use policies to the park during school hours, the question remains open as to whether the district (a government entity) can legally restrict free speech and religious liberty on the grounds of a taxpayer-funded public park when the event is organized by students on their own lunch hour.

Davis said he would be meeting with the city's attorney to look for solutions to the conflict.

FFRF's Ryan Jayne wrote in a letter to Middleton-Cross Plains Superintendent Don Johnson that the "basic rights" of the First Amendment have "reasonable limits when applied to school campuses."

"The district is well within its right to regulate large groups targeting district students, especially when those groups violate district rules and regulations," Jayne wrote.

Jayne then said FFRF would attend and planned to provide "a little fuel" to the students in the "captive audience," including chocolate cookies, brownies and cupcakes. The group also said it planned to provide some of its own literature, such as pamphlets on how women need freedom "from" religion. It also claimed it would bring copies of the rules for a student essay contest on "free thinking" that could yield up to $7,500 in scholarship money for college-bound students.

On Tuesday, FFRF made good on its promise and on its Facebook page slammed what it called the disingenuous behavior of the Christian parents.

"A loose coalition of parents, apparently evangelicals, have taken advantage of a leasing ambiguity to bribe high schoolers with a weekly free lunch virtually right outside the school back entrance, where a narrow park abuts the school grounds with a pavilion. The lunch bags invariably include a proselytizing token. Some weeks it's Jesus pencils, or Jesus wristbands. Jesus Lunchers come back into the school flaunting their Jesus items, where this has become a source of friction, hard feelings and arguments," the statement on the social media site said.

The problem, according to "Jesus Lunch" organizers, is that there is no problem with their use of the park and no infringement on any constitutional principles. Students are not required to attend, accept food or Bibles, or even to hang around to listen to discussions about religion and the Bible. The normal 3-5 minute presentation of biblical truths that normally accompanies the lunch was called off on Tuesday due to the protests.

The presence of sweets at the event drew about one-third of the students away from the "Jesus Lunch" and toward FFRF's effort, the Journal reported. Student protestors also took turns speaking against the rally.

One student, 18-year-old Joshua Biatch, told the paper the event was divisive within the student body.

"This event is designed purely for Christian students and that creates divisions between Christians and every other student," Biatch, who calls himself a Jewish-atheist, said. "People keep saying, 'Oh, this isn't a big deal. It's been blown out of proportion.' They are always white, Christian people. ... I have had to defend myself and explain myself so many times this week. People don't get it because people don't think beyond themselves."

Last week, Middleton High School Principal Steve Plank and Superntendent 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.

Phillip Stamman, the attorney representing the students and parents who organize the lunch, said the law in the case is clear – the park 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. Christian parents who provide a free lunch and share their religious beliefs with park visitors retain their First Amendment rights to do so, notwithstanding unfounded protests from the school district."