Jesus Lunches: Debate about religious lunches errupts

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MTT News's picture
Matt Geiger

How do you cook up the perfect bubbling stew of controversy in the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District?

Just combine religion, public schools, a city park and the First Amendment. Then throw in a smattering of attorneys and social media hyperbole for good measure.

That’s what happened last week when everyone in the community seemed to be staking out a vehement position on “Jesus Lunches,” a series of events at which the mothers of local high school students have been talking about their Christian faith and handing out free food to a growing number of local teens. 

While the lunches have been occurring periodically for a couple years now, it was last week that the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District went public with the details of its ongoing concerns about the events.

The district says the lunches occur at Fireman’s Park, directly adjacent to Middleton High School, on school days. The park, which is a public municipal space owned by the City of Middleton, is rented by the school district, which says it enforces district rules during the school day. Public schools are prohibited from providing religious instruction, and parents are prohibited from organizing events on school grounds without the district’s permission.

The district also says the lunches could violate regulations regarding the distribution of food to students during the school day.

Supporters of Jesus Lunches disagree. Strongly. They contend that they are inspiring students and preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ at a public park where the First Amendment clearly protects their basic right to free speech.

Some students, both theists and atheists alike, have raised concerns that the lunches are a divisive force in the school community. Others, once again both those who are religious and those who are not, say the group’s right to free speech is worth fighting for, regardless of what they are saying.

Various media outlets were quick to jump on the story – liberal ones tended to slant their articles in favor of the school district, while conservative ones spun the story in favor of the Jesus Lunch organizers. The controversy also sparked lively, sometimes emotional debate at the local level, as well, with many a Facebook thread spiraling into the dreaded land of vitriol, partisan politics and name calling.

As of this week, the City of Middleton, along with its police force, appear to agree that the Jesus Lunches are a protected form of free speech. That stance means other groups – Muslims, Buddhists, Pagans, atheists groups, the Church of Satan, and others – would all be able to hold similar events at Fireman’s Park during the school day.

Students on both sides of the issue were in agreement on one thing: The Jesus Lunch controversy has created a tense, uncomfortable atmosphere at Middleton High School.

Clare Day, a junior, has been attending the lunches since their inception. “It’s a great experience to be around people who feel the same way I do,” she stated.

But the issue has stirred up strong emotions, which have led to palpable anxiety among students, Day added.

“I feel like it’s pretty tense,” she said. “Like the air is just more tense.”

Arguments on social media have only added fuel to the fire, she continued.

“The thing about Middleton, unfortunately, is that a lot of people go to Twitter with their criticisms,” Day said. “Some harsh things have been said.”

Lew Blank, also a junior, identifies as an atheist and opposes the lunches for several reasons.

“It’s an attempt to convert people and it’s run by adults, not by students,” he said. “And it’s negative.”

“Just look at the park they chose,” he continued. “It’s clear they are targeting students. This isn’t people choosing to observe their personal faith, which I support; this is an attempt to convert students.”

But both Blank and Day were in total agreement about how high emotions are running within the school community.

“It’s really tense,” Blank said. “Tensions are high.”

While the lunches have been debated internally for some time, it was a statement released by Middleton High School principal Stephen Plank and Middleton-Cross Plains Area superintendent Don Johnson that laid out, for the public, the district’s position early last week.

“There is a small group of parents who have been organizing free lunches at Middleton High School over the past year,” said Johnson and Plank.

“These lunches began on a very small scale with one [or] two parents bringing sandwiches to their own children at MHS, sitting down with them at lunch, outside the building and discussing their Christian faith,” they continued. “It then expanded to the parents bringing more and more lunches to give to students interested in sitting down and discussing their religious faith.”

“In speaking with parents about concerns regarding informal gatherings growing into larger ones with the dissemination of food and giving away of Bibles,” they continued. “The parents [and] students moved from outdoors on the south lawn of the school, to an off campus location — which would have been allowable but would have required school administration to inform parents of any incentivizing of students to eat lunch free in exchange for attendance — and finally to Fireman’s Park in the fall of 2015.”

In both cases of the south lawn and off campus locations, Plank expressed an opposition to the event and said they violated school and district policy.

Jesus Lunch organizers then went to the City of Middleton and reserved Fireman’s Park starting in September of 2015, according to the district.

“The parents provided large quantities of free food at the pavilion and began more organized events,” said Johnson and Plank. “The lunch event developed the name ‘Jesus Lunch’ amongst MHS students, as it promoted a Christian-based worship. Steve Plank once again asked the parents to stop holding these lunches. They refused and continued to expand them. The School District’s lease of Fireman’s Park permits enforcement of school policies during school hours/days.”

The district said its concerns related to this event come down to policy expectations that MCPASD maintains — “policies in place to ensure student safety, health, and welfare.”

“The policies in question include food handling, visitors to campus, and expectations around student organized events,” said Johnson and Plank. “We are in no way interested in opposing religious practice in otherwise legal circumstances.”

According to the district, anyone providing food for students must follow the district’s food handling standards found in the district Food Safety Plan.  In addition, many students are subject to food allergies, so additional protocols must be followed to safeguard students with these conditions, they said. A parent group bringing large quantities of food to a school also raises significant questions regarding whether it is, in fact, an adult organized event that has not followed Administrative Policy 371, they added. 

In addition, adult visitors to school and the school’s campus must follow Administrative Policy 860 Visitors to the Schools, which requires registering in the school office, or the greeter’s station, the district said.

 “If students are interested in organizing student led activities, MHS staff are happy to work with them and will convey the district and school policies that govern activities,” said Johnson and Plank. “This, however, appears to be an event initiated by adults without approval by the school.”

As the district consulted legal counsel for an opinion about its lease of Fireman’s Park, Plank again asked the parents to cancel the event. Jesus Lunch organizers said they intended to continue organizing the lunches, pointing out that they were taking place at a city park, not at the high school.

“Instead of acknowledging and abiding by the District’s policies, the parents have threatened legal action against the district,” said Johnson and Plank.

Beth Williams, a Middleton High School parent, is among the mothers who first began organizing Jesus Lunches. She said adult parents have every right to hold religious events at Fireman’s Park, including during the school day.

She said she has no desire to be in conflict with the school district, and she had no intention of setting off a national media frenzy. She just, she said, wants to gather in a public place and talk about her faith.

“[The] Middleton School District has not yet approached us to discuss what we do or how the Jesus Lunch began,” Williams said. “We have invited them to attend, but as of [this] date, they have declined.”

“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,” Williams continued. “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. 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,” Williams said. “The City of Middleton has sent us a letter [last] week and acknowledged our rental agreement of the pavilion at Firemen’s Park.”

Their mission statement for Jesus Lunches is “food for the body, nutrition for the soul.”

“Our goal each week is to share a Biblical truth,” Williams said. “Students who come to lunch are not required to listen to or participate in the three- to five-minute message. Jesus Lunch began in the fall of 2014 with a small group of our children and their friends. Our children continued to tell their friends, who told their friends, and through word of mouth, the Jesus Lunch continues to grow.”

Students that attend Jesus Lunch have expressed their desire for Jesus Lunch to continue, according to Williams. She said as many as 500 students sometimes attend.

Sarah Statsick, a junior at Middleton High School, has been attending Jesus Lunches “since day one.”

“The reason I love going is because I love sharing my faith, and to be able to share my faith with my friends makes it so much more powerful and builds a great community of faith followers,” Statsick said.

Jayne Patterson, also a junior at Middleton High School, said she attends “for the people.”

“I have been attending Jesus Lunch from the very start … and that reason has remained the same all throughout,” Patterson continued. “It’s the moms who truly care about you presenting a Bible verse in a way that can be interpreted by high school students and prepare over 400 individual lunches to make sure we are satisfied for the rest of our school day.”

“It’s also the kids,” she added. “You know you can always reach out to them in the hallways after seeing them at Jesus Lunch, no matter if they’re your friends or not. Everyone is so appreciative of the mothers and I hear so many ‘thank yous’ from all the kids.”

“The Jesus Lunch has become the highlight of the week for students and those involved,” Williams added, noting that all five mothers coordinating the events have children in the district.

Williams said she would also support the right of other groups — including those that may hold opposing theological views — to hold events at the park.

“That’s the beauty,” she said, “of living in America.”

Amy Kortbein, a Middleton resident and the parent of an eighth grader in the district who will enter Middleton High School in the fall of this year, said the events clearly violate the separation of church and state.

“While I have no doubt that the adults running the Jesus Lunches are well intentioned and are carrying out what they believe is their churches’ mission, I strongly believe that their activities belong at another location,” said Kortbein. “All students in the MCPASD have the right to go to school in an environment that is free from religious pressures.”

“Our public schools are funded and run by the government,” she continued. “The United States long ago decided that religion and government should not mix.”

In the 1948 case “McCollum v. Board of Education,” the United States Supreme Court ruled decisively on the power of a state to use its tax-supported public school system in aid of religious instruction. In it, the court struck down a Champaign, Ill. program as unconstitutional because of the public school system’s involvement in the administration, organization, and support of religious instruction classes.

Jesus Lunch organizers counter that they – not the public school district – are funding, organizing, and supporting these events.

But Kortbein contended that by setting up Jesus Lunch next to a school on school-leased property during school lunch hour, “the adults have clearly made a decision to target public school students for religious teaching.”

“If these adults would like to teach their religion to children they should do so with the permission of the students’ family or guardians in an appropriate setting that does not make children of different faiths or agnostic [or] atheist students feel uncomfortable or excluded,” Kortbein said. “I agree with the parents of Jesus Lunches, high school can be a very challenging time.  However, bringing religion into the mix in the middle of the day on school leased property will cause more uncomfortable situations and conflict than comfort to the students at our high school.”

Kortbein said she has spoken with many parents whose children attended the lunches and walked away “feeling very uncomfortable.”

“The administration has many very clearly defined reasons that the Jesus Lunches should be moved,” she said. “These reasons are based on established law and regulations.”

“While I understand the passion of the adults running Jesus Lunches, it is time for them to move their religious activities to a time and location that are not in violation of the separation of church and state,” she said.

Fifteen-year-old Peter Opitz is one of the students who approached school officials with concerns about the Jesus Lunches. Opitz, a practicing Christian who is preparing for his confirmation later this month, said opposition to the events stems from what he believes is a negative impact on the school community, not from anti-religious sentiments.

“I’m a Christian. I worship the same God — Jesus — that they do. But [Jesus Lunches have been] extremely divisive for our learning community and our students,” Opitz said. “Staff has found students crying in the hallway because their friends went to the Jesus Lunch and they were excluded because their religion was different.”

Opitz, along with other students, organized a lunch event of their own on Tuesday of this week at Fireman’s Park.

“That lunch will accept all religions, all genders — everyone,” he said before it took place.

Opitz voiced concerns over the precedent Jesus Lunches set if they are justified using the First Amendment.

“If this continues, anyone can come and hold events,” he said. “There could be hate groups handing out lunches to students.”

“I’m just trying to stand up for people who feel distressed,” he continued. “And I’m distressed, as a Christian, because I feel empathy for non-Christians in our school community.”

Opitz started a petition on entitled: “Tell Jesus Lunch to Follow School Regulations.”

As of early this week, the petition had 626 signatures.

“Jesus Lunch is an event at Fireman’s Park every Tuesday in the Spring and Fall,” Opitz wrote. “Local moms serve free food and preach the Christian faith to high school students during their lunch period. They serve up to 400 students every meal. Fireman’s Park, in a lease agreed upon by the City of Middleton and MCPASD, is under the jurisdiction of the school district during school hours. Since Jesus Lunch is occurring during school hours, the school district has jurisdiction over the event.”

Many who signed the petition also weighed in on the controversy, saying adults should not be “luring minor children” away from school in order to spread their religious beliefs.

“The only place for religion in public schools is if it is being taught with all other religions,” wrote a Middleton resident who signed the petition. “This lunch wouldn’t even be happening if it were, say, a group of Muslims instead of a group of wealthy white Christians.”

Supporters of the lunches subsequently started their own petition.

Started by Storm and Betsy Murphy, Caleb Cymbalak, and Max Westhoff, of Madison, their petition was entitled: “Allow Jesus Lunch to continue at Fireman’s Park!”

As of Monday, 2,075 people had signed their names in support of the petition.

“Jesus Lunch has had a positive impact on our students lives and we go entirely by choice!” Murphy, Cymbalak, and Westhoff wrote. “We love the moms and the messages Jesus Lunch speaks about. We want the Jesus Lunch to continue!”

“Jesus Lunch has helped me feel closer to my peers and my community,” wrote a Cross Plains resident who signed the petition. “I do not believe that the school has the right to control the prayer or representation of any religion, Christian or otherwise, on public property.”

One Middleton man who signed it wrote simply: “Jesus is the only way.”

Middleton City Administrator Mike Davis said the city’s agreement with the school district regarding Fireman’s Park has been in place for 16 years. While it does allow the district to use the park, Davis said it also specifically allows for the greater public to use the space. That means everyone, he said, regardless of religious beliefs.

As tensions mounted and rhetoric grew more heated toward the end of last week, Middleton Police Chief Chuck Foulke issued his own statement regarding Jesus Lunches.

“The ‘Jesus Lunch’ controversy has garnered attention in our community, region and beyond,” said Foulke. “By now, most have heard that a group of parents are providing lunches and religious talks to Middleton High School students on Tuesdays during lunch periods until the end of the school year. “

“I think most people would agree that this is perfectly fine if it occurs in a Park, but problematic if it occurs on school grounds without following school protocols,” Foulke continued. “The issue with using Firemen’s Park is that it is leased for non-exclusive use to the school during school days.”

“Reasonable people differ over the interpretation of the wording of the lease,” he continued. “I’m not worried about reasonable people, but I am concerned about unreasonable people, people who are using this issue for their own purposes and who are beginning to threaten good people on either side of this issue.”

Foulke went on to say that “unless something unforeseen happens,” the next Jesus Lunch, scheduled for Tuesday of this week, would happen. He said they “will probably continue until the end of the school year.”

“I am concerned that groups on both sides of this issue plan on also being present on Tuesdays for ‘Jesus Lunch,’” Foulke said. “That is fine and perfectly legal, but let us keep it peaceful. Middleton Police Officers will be nearby, not to interfere in any way with anyone’s right of assembly or speech, but we will intervene if things get contentious. Please do not assume that our presence in any way indicates a preference for any side in this issue other than to preserve the peace and allow people to exercise their 1st Amendment rights.”

“Let’s also remember that there is a high school next door and try not to interfere with the learning environment,” Foulke concluded. “I hope it is not the students who teach the adults how to act.”



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