UPDATE: Middleton school officials ask parents to stop 'Jesus Lu - WKOW 27: Madison, WI Breaking News, Weather and Sports

UPDATE: Middleton school officials ask parents to stop 'Jesus Lunch' events

Posted: Updated:

MIDDLETON (WKOW) -- School district officials say a group of parents that hosts regular, large-scale lunches for high school students to talk about their Christian faith is violating school policies.

Middleton Cross Plains Area School District sent a letter home to parents to alert them of the district's ongoing concerns with the events ahead of a planned lunch on Tuesday. District officials say between 300 and 400 students met with the group Tuesday at Fireman's Park.

It all started with a few mothers meeting with their own children at the school and slowly grew. The large gatherings, which students have started calling "Jesus Lunch" began last fall. According to the Jesus Lunch Middleton website, there are seven more lunch dates set this spring. Organizers say their mission is to "spread the Gospel to high school students through serving them and allowing them to explore God's grace."

Middleton High School Principal Steve Plank tells 27 News it's become a divisive issue at the school.

"Some students feel excluded or left out," Plank says. "We have students of different faiths, Muslim students or Hindu students or Jewish students who feel like this is happening and it's not for them. We've had some students that leave school early on those days. Maybe feel intimidated by people coming back in afterward."

District officials claim the organized events are a violation of district policies, including: food provided for students must follow the district's food handling standards, adult visitors to the school campus must register at the school office and only students can organize activities and they must be approved by school officials.

Fireman's Park, which is in the backyard of Middleton High School, is owned by the city so it's a public space but MCPASD has had an agreement with the city for 16 years to lease the property for $1. Part of that agreement allows the district to use it as an educational space or recreational area for students during school days, between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. The district provided 27 News a copy of the lease agreement, which allows the district to have joint control and jurisdiction of the park, including the right to enforce district rules and regulations. A sign posted at the park indicates school rules are to be followed during school hours.

The five mothers who started Jesus Lunch declined an interview with 27 News. They have obtained permits to use the park from the city of Middleton and have hired an attorney to represent them as they move forward with plans to host more events, saying it's well within their First Amendment rights.

"Just because a public entity leases to a private organization or private citizen, that public park does not become a private entity, so the First Amendment right still applies," says their attorney Phillip Stamman.

Stamman tells 27 News it's up to the district how this will move forward. He doesn't want to file a lawsuit but he says the district telling his clients they cannot be in the park is a violation of their rights. 

He also points out the district allows students to go wherever they want during lunch and no one is required to go to Jesus Lunch.

"Anyone can really attend this and grab a meal and walk away," Stamman says. "No one actually has to sit and listen to it. This is essentially a free meal and [the moms are] talking for just a couple minutes."

Superintendent Don Johnson says it's the district's responsibility to provide a supervised environment for students during the school day. School officials would be open to the idea of Jesus Lunch becoming a student-led club that follows district rules. He says he'd like to sit down with the mothers and find an alternative that works for everyone.

"We are not anti-religion, we are not anti-Christian, we are really pro-embracing all of our students and all of our religious faiths, or the lack of that," Johnson tells 27 News. "We're a public institution and we think that's a really important part of this."

Stamman says he's offered to meet with the superintendent but has not yet heard back from the district's attorney on the matter. Meanwhile, the district will be working with the city to clarify details of the lease agreement.

Here is the full letter sent to district parents Thursday:

Dear families,

We are writing to share with you some background on a topic your student may have come home and shared with you. There is a small group of parents who have been organizing free lunches at Middleton High School over the past year.

These lunches began on a very small scale with one / two parents bringing sandwiches to their own children at MHS, sitting down with them at lunch, outside the building and discussing their Christian faith. 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. The parents / 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, Steve Plank expressed an opposition to this growing event, and conveyed to these parents that this practice violates school and district policy.

The group went to the City of Middleton and reserved Fireman’s Park starting in September of 2015. The parents provided large quantities of free food at the pavilion and began more organized events. 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 School District's 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. We are in no way interested in opposing religious practice in otherwise legal circumstances. Below are three of the policies being ignored:

    Anyone providing food for students must follow the district’s food handling standards found in the district Food Safety Plan.  Food of any kind that is served to students must be approved by the school / district to ensure food safety, cleanliness, and health. In addition, many students are subject to food allergies, so additional protocols must be followed to safeguard students with these conditions. 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. 

    Adult visitors to school / school campus must follow Administrative Policy 860 Visitors to the Schools, which requires registering in the school office, or the greeter’s station. This is a requirement of all visitors to our schools / school campus during school hours, whether or not they are parents. 

    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. This, however, appears to be an event initiated by adults without approval by the school.

Steve Plank, MHS Principal

Don Johnson, Superintendent

We also reached out to the "Jesus Lunch" group and here is their response to 27 News:

We would like to thank you for this opportunity to hear our story, as the Middleton School District has not yet approached us to discuss what we do or how the Jesus Lunch began. We have invited them to attend, but as of 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. 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.

Our mission statement for Jesus Lunch is "food for the body, nutrition for the soul". Our goal each week is to share a Biblical truth. Students who come to lunch are not required to listen to or participate in the 3-5 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. The Jesus Lunch has become the highlight of the week for students and those involved!

Powered by Frankly