Screen Shot 2016-04-16 at 1.36.43 PMReligious liberty cases in the public schools can sometimes be difficult to resolve. Often, there are competing issues of pressing public interest and religious liberty. Such a situation is being fought in Middleton, Wisconsin, but there is no question that one party is badly, perhaps even maliciously, wrong. Fox News reports:

There’s a religious liberty standoff underway in Middleton, Wisconsin.

On one side is a group of Christian moms armed with Chick-fil-A sandwiches and 400 homemade brownies. On the other side are public school administrators who believe that Jesus and plump juicy chicken breasts are ‘divisive.’

The controversy surrounds an off-campus lunch event involving students at Middleton High School known as ‘Jesus Lunch.’

The high school allows students to eat lunch off-campus. In 2014 a small group of parents began meeting with their children in a nearby park — providing home cooked meals along with a Christian-themed, inspirational message.

The small weekly gatherings in the fall and spring eventually morphed into a popular gathering spot for hungry kids — with nearly 500 turning out for all sorts of goodies — ranging from Chick-fil-A sandwiches and fresh fruit to hundreds of homemade brownies.

‘We show up every week just to show the love of Jesus,’ parent Beth Williams told me. ‘Our mission statement for Jesus Lunch is ‘food for the body, nutrition for the soul.’

Let’s review: Middleton High School has long had a policy, a policy in place prior to 2014, that its students may leave campus for lunch. A great many schools have a similar policy. What this generally means is that any student that chooses to leave the campus is no longer the responsibility of the school until they return. It also means the school has no authority over those students while they are gone. If, for example, a student chose to go home for lunch–some surely do–the idea that school authorities could exercise control over those students that overrides their parent’s wishes would reasonably be dismissed as absurd.

That being the case, and the law is unambiguous on such things, what is the school district’s complaint?

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Superintendent Donald Johnson and Principal Stephen Plank called the off-campus religious gatherings ‘divisive’ and they want the weekly non-denominational meetings shut down.

‘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,’ the pair wrote in an email sent to parents on April 12.

The district accused the moms of violating all sorts of rules — especially in the area of food preparation. They implied the parents are putting their children in danger by hosting the weekly picnics.

‘The policies in question include food handling, visitors to campus, and expectations around student organized events,’ the administrators wrote. ‘We are in no way interested in opposing religious practice in otherwise legal circumstances.’

The district said parents are ignoring ‘food handling standards.’

‘Food of any kind that is served to students must be approved by the school/district to ensure food safety, cleanliness and health,’ they wrote. ‘In addition, many students are subject to food allergies, so additional protocols must be followed to safeguard students with these conditions.

The School District’s argument totters on a crumbling foundation. The SD has a long-standing lease with the town of Middleton, giving it access to the park, which is immediately adjacent the high school grounds. The park has a covered pavilion where the mothers hold their once-a-week lunches. It is this lease arrangement the SD claims gives it absolute authority over the park and anyone in it. This is indefensible.

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In a news report included in this You Tube video, a local news station reported that the City of Middleton’s Administrator, Mike Davis, affirmed that the SD’s lease does not give it exclusive control over the park. He also said the school can enforce school rules in the park as long as they don’t conflict with the general public. This would seem to be somewhat contradictory, but what Davis is saying is that when the School District is holding an official, school-sponsored event in the park, school rules apply for those subject to those rules on what is unquestionably school property, but not to any member of the general public that might happen to be in the park at the same time. Also, when others are using the park at a time that the school is not–that would be most of the time–the school district has no authority over them.  How could it?

In this case, the SD is not claiming that the mothers, and the kids who choose to attend the lunches, are interfering with any of the SD’s scheduled activities. The mothers, and the students, have every right to be in the park. In fact, the mothers have obtained their own paid lease, permit, leave, call it what you will, to hold those events on those specific dates and times.

The SD’s arguments about food preparation and safety are ridiculous. It is essentially arguing that the SD has absolute authority over the food of anyone choosing to eat in the park. It’s nothing less than SD food police trying to roust picnics. The school district’s intransigence has required the mothers to hire attorneys:

These are mothers,’ attorney Phillip Stamman told me. ‘They are spending all their time and effort to show love for these kids and now they are being attacked by a superintendent and principal — trying to intimidate them.’

Stamman is representing the moms as they figure out how to respond to the school district’s hostility towards home-cooking and Jesus.

‘The [school district] is going after them because they are spreading a religious message. They are upset because they are sharing Christianity.

And what is the nature of this “Christianity?” Apparently the mothers provide, sometime during each lunch, 3-5 minutes of a Christian message. That’s it. No one is required to stay or listen, and all are free to eat lunch and leave if a little bit of Christianity bothers them.  Attendance at these lunches is entirely voluntary.  Anyone distressed by what goes on there is free to be elsewhere.

The good folks at Legal Insurrection have also added a bit of information: 

On April 12, the principal and district superintendent sent a school-wide email calling for the Jesus lunches to be put to an end. The email claimed the five parents heading the Jesus lunch were in violation of several rules, mentioning food handling and campus visitors as as a primary concern. ‘The policies in question include food handling, visitors to campus, and expectations around student organized events,’ the administrators wrote. ‘We are in no way interested in opposing religious practice in otherwise legal circumstances.

The You Tube video features the Principal and Superintendent, claiming that some students, on the days when the horrific lunches are held, “leave school early.” They also claim that some kids are so upset by it, they have been found “crying in the hallways.” That sounds as though there might be just a smidgeon of animosity toward the religious sharing. Who would be leaving school or crying about lunch?

If kids are skipping school for any reason, that is the legitimate concern of school authorities, and they certainly have the authority to deal with it. Crying students? Presumably, they have counselors?  Of course, if there are actually kids in need of “safe spaces” over a bit of lunch and Christianity, perhaps the counselors can figuratively whack them alongside their heads and bid them get a grip on themselves.

The remaining two concerns outlined in the email continue to treat the park school property, something the organizers of the Jesus lunch claim is not the case. As a public park owned by the City of Middleton, Fireman’s Park is accessible to the entire public, the parents maintain. Even though Middleton High School holds holds a lease agreement with the city, the lease does not enable the school to, in effect, to treat the public park as its own property. The mothers of the Jesus lunch said the following in a statement on Wednesday:

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One final review of the facts:

The school allows kids, at their own discretion, to leave campus for lunch.

While gone from school, the SD has no authority over those children.

The SD does have a lease, rental agreement, call it what you will, with the city giving it the right to use the park, but the city stipulates this lease does not give it exclusive control over the park, nor control over what others might do there.

The mothers have a lease, etc. from the city specifically authorizing their “Jesus Lunches.”

Students are free to attend the lunch or go to the local McDonald’s. They are not forced to endure the horrors of Christianity. They may grab a bite and leave before any Christian words are spoken.

The School District’s entire claim of authority relies on its lease of the park, a lease the issuing authority has made clear does not give the SD exclusive use of the park or any authority over members of the public choosing to use it when the School District is not using it. The SD is clearly not using the park on the days and times when the mothers are holding their lunches, and they have a lease giving them control over the portion of the park they use for those lunches.  In effect, the SD is arguing backwards: because citizens and students use the park at times when the SD does not, because the SD wants authority over them, and because the SD has a lease allowing occasional use of the park, the SD claims absolute authority over anyone using the park at any time.  Presumably, the SD has not attempted, in the last several years, to exercise authority over anyone else using the park.

There can be no argument from rational people: the SD has no authority over those lunches, the mothers, the food served, any words spoken, or the students that choose to attend. Claiming that the lunches are “divisive” also provides no authority. A thousand political and social issues are arguably “divisive.”  Will the SD claim authority over them to prevent divisiveness in its high school?  One can reasonably argue that it is the SD’s job to educate students upset about the lunches on the realities of law and religious liberty involved. Helping them learn to deal with the kind of horrible, soul-shattering adversity such a situation causes might also be something school officials might see as their legitimate responsibility.

There is apparently no religious exercise occurring on school property, except the little bit of Fireman’s Park the SD is suddenly claiming as its own. The school has no authority over picnic lunches served by kind mothers of students in a nearby park.  It certainly has no control over religious exercises.  One wonders what the concerned, sensitive administrators will do when some of their students learn that Christianity regularly occurs in large buildings off school grounds called “churches.”  The leaving early and crying will surely be out of control.

So what’s the real issue?

I don’t know the Superintendent or Principal. Perhaps they really think these are significant issues over which they are obligated by professional practice and law to assert authority. Perhaps their motives are pure as the driven snow.  Perhaps they are petty tyrants who can’t abide the idea that mere citizens would do anything of which they disapprove. Perhaps they are anti-Christian bigots.

None of that matters. They have no authority to do what they are doing. It is their intransigence that is stirring up controversy and dividing their high school and community. Their behavior is the kind of governmental overreach that diminishes respect not only for government at large, but for public education.  This could be a win-win situation for the entire community.  The mothers clearly wish to express their love for and support of the schools and the kids that attend them, and they’re willing to spend a great deal of time and their own–not taxpayer money–to do it.  The SD should gladly embrace their kindness–such support is all too rare these days–and praise them for their involvement.  No one is being harmed, everyone looks good and could reasonably feel good about themselves.

Instead, the Mothers will be forced to defend their clear rights, and they will win.  At that point, the SD probably will, like petulant children, revoke the off campus lunch policy, reasserting their control over the children of others.  They are surely considering doing just that even as I write these words.  If they do, it’s a lose-lose for everyone.  But there is, if this occurs, one potential bright spot for the community: the citizens of Middleton can vote any school board members with an outlandish view of their authority out of office, reinstate the off campus lunch policy, and remove any school administrators or principals unwilling to respect the law, and the rights of students and their parents.

The mothers, and the rest of the citizens of Middleton, Wisconsin need to reign them in, once and for all. The sooner, the better.

UPDATE, 04-19-16, 2010 CST: It appears things have escalated a bit. According to The Capital Times, there has been at least one, primarily peaceful, protest. reports: 

Supt. Johnson and a Mother credit: EAG News/You Tube

Supt. Johnson and a Mother
credit: EAG News/You Tube

[Officials] coned up the parking lot, waited there and confronted my clients and told them to leave,’ Phillip Stamman, an attorney representing the moms, told the website. ‘[The parents] responded how I recommended. They walked right past them. The superintendent repeatedly tried to confront them. He was the first one. But they just moved on.

The Jesus Lunch mothers parked across the street, and simply walked around the school officials. Neither the mothers, nor school officials, tried to touch anyone. Obviously, both sides are listening to their attorneys.

The District has understood over the past 16 years that this is a District responsibility, and that school rules and District policy must apply,’ Johnson wrote in an email to Cap Times April 16. ‘[Middleton-Cross Plains School District] is not interested in litigation, and is committed to working collaboratively to find a solution that meets the needs of all parties. We are interested in thoughtful and respectful dialogue. We do not intend to interfere with the Jesus Lunch, and we will continue to reach out to organizers to find an amicable resolution in the near future in the best interests of all of our students.

This statement raises a particularly interesting situation. Such “resolution” requires compromise. What, exactly, will the School District be willing to compromise? What essential function or activity of the School District will it be willing to curtail or give up to reach a “resolution?”

The SD claims absolute authority over the Jesus Lunches, and even tried to physically impose it. Yet, the City does not agree, and has made it plain the SD’s lease does not give it exclusive control of the Park. In addition, the women hosting the lunches also have a lease for the park. The local police do not agree with the SD’s position, and have been present only to ensure that things remain peaceful.

The SD is not being in any way inconvenienced, nor is the mission of the High School being in any way compromised by the lunches held once a week, only a portion of each year, in the nearby park. So again, what will the SD give up to reach a “resolution?” They have nothing to surrender, except ceasing unnecessarily stirring up trouble, which means that any and all compromise will have to come at the expense of the mothers sponsoring the lunches. Will they have the lunch less often? Serve only school approved food? Stop any religious references? Quit altogether?

“We do not intend to interfere with the Jesus Lunch.” Great. The SD can live that assertion immediately by stopping its interference.