Every Tuesday, in a park near Middleton High School in Wisconsin, a bunch of faith-heads offer free lunches for students – served with a generous portion of Jesus.
Schools have a duty of care to their pupils, and having unregulated strangers prepare and serve food to kids is naturally a source of concern to Middleton-Cross Plains school district officials, who have been trying to stop what has become known as the “Jesus Lunch” programme.
Squawks of “persecution” were immediately heard, and, according to this report, school officials have resorted to heavy-handed tactics to stop the Christians from giving out food, religious messages and Bibles at Fireman’s Park, which is leased by the school district.
The “intimidation” included school officials setting up cones to block parents from using the parking lot at at the park on Tuesday, according to Phil Stamman, an attorney who is representing the mothers involved with the programme.
Stammen is quoted here as saying:
These ongoing attempts to suppress free speech by school officials are disgraceful. These mothers devote hours each week to serving the students with free meals and a brief message about Jesus. They should not be bullied or harassed – but praised.
Donald Johnson, the superintendent of the Middleton-Cross Plains district, was among the school officials who tried to order the parents from using the park, Stamman said.
Beth Williams, one of the organisers of the student lunches, issued a statement defending her group’s right to use the park.
School district officials recently sent a letter to parents, expressing concerns about the event and urging parents to end it.
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 privatise the park.
The letter said that school officials:
Believe that religious or political events do not have a place in our schools 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 incentivise 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 solution.
The school district has also expressed concern about the quality of the food being served to students, but Stammen rejected that argument.
Their true motivation is clear – it’s the religious speech (they object to).
He added that school officials have sought the help of local police to evict the parents, but they had declined to intervene. The lawyer said:
Students are free to go a local gas station to buy food, a friend’s house, McDonalds. It’s not an issue with food. The problem is the religious message and the fact that it’s becoming too effective.
Stamman said the parents could take legal action to protect their right to use the park, serve the lunches and speak freely about their religious faith.
I’ve been talking to a lawyer for the city and my clients and the Alliance Defending Freedom. We’re reviewing our options. We have not decided how to move forward yet.