On 04-22-16 I published Middleton, WI: The Not Quite Last Supper, which was the story of a group of Middleton High School mothers who, at their own expense, provided lunches for any student that wanted to attend their “Jesus Lunches,” which were held at a park pavilion adjacent the high school. They were called “Jesus Lunches” because lunch was accompanied by a brief–no more than five minute–bit of scripture. Kids weren’t required to listen, or participate, could come and go as they pleased, and were served lunch whether they listened or not.
That sounds like a pretty innocuous, even nice, thing to do, so what was the controversy? The School District, which had a long-standing lease with the City of Middleton for use of the park, decided that its school rules applied to any and everyone using the park even if there were no school activities occurring in the park. There were no school activities in the park during the Jesus Lunches. Middleton High School has off-campus lunch periods. The kids can stay on campus, or leave as they choose, to eat lunch elsewhere. So to maintain strict neutrality between church and state, the SD decided that the Jesus Lunches must end. The SD even tried to characterize their determination to assert control over the Jesus Lunch mothers as a food safety matter.
One might think the SD was just being a little overzealous, but not entirely unreasonable. That view is only tenable if one doesn’t know all the facts. The Jesus Lunch Mothers also obtained a lease from the City for the park for the days/times they held the lunches, and the position of the City was that the SD’s lease did not give it exclusive control over the park.
At one point, the High School Principal and District Superintendent actually tried to physically block the mothers from entering the park, but they simply walked around them.
This led to increasingly angry protests of the Jesus Lunches by parents and students alike and caused the kind of lingering, destructive rift such things can do in small towns. Throughout it all, the mothers continued providing lunches, and attendance continued to grow, reaching as many as 800 kids for the Tuesday lunches. I ended that first article thus:
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?
The end of the school year has provided a sort of resolution in and of itself, but there is a bit more to report, as channel3000.com reports:
Middleton City Council approved the school district’s plans to cancel its lease of Firemen’s Park. The park is located next to the high school. Because of concerns resulting from Jesus Lunches happening at the park every Tuesday, the district decided the best option would be to terminate the lease.
District Superintendent Don Johnson sent a letter to Middleton parents about the proposed cancellation Monday.
In the letter, Johnson said city attorney Matt Fleming indicated the city believes the school district’s authority to enforce school rules in Firemen’s Park is questionable, and the city has no interest in ‘litigation to resolve the ambiguities in the language.’ Johnson said that even enhanced language that clarifies the issue may still result in legal expenses that will not benefit anyone.
This is just a bit disingenuous. All the SD had to do was quit trying to exercise control over something it had no authority to control, however, by ending its lease, there is no question the SD has no authority whatever over what happens in the adjacent Fireman’s Park. Fortunately, the SD’s attorney was smart enough to recognize an unquestionably losing issue and make the right, constitutionally valid recommendation. One would think everyone could just leave things alone, however, as John Belushi used to say: “but noooooooo!”
I definitely don’t think this will solve the issue, because the real issue here is that students that are not of the Christian faith are feeling marginalized and excluded because this lunch only caters to the Christian faith,’ said Middleton sophomore Peter Opitz.
Young Mr. Opitz is misinformed. The lunches are free to any and everyone, all are welcome, and no one is required to pray, remain, or even listen to the very brief bit of Christian sharing. Anyone feeling “marginalize or excluded” is more than free to establish their own events, just not at the same place at the same time. The mothers have a lease for that space and those times, after all. Unfortunately, it seems even the City will not leave well enough alone:
City Attorney Matt Fleming said terminating the lease will not make a huge impact.
‘Terminating the lease doesn’t change the situations from the city’s perspective. It reduces the perception of people that this is school district property,’ he said.
Yes, because it is not school district property and never was.
Fleming said the with the ending of the lease the city could look at updating restrictions at the park, including discussing if groups should be allowed to reserve the park during school hours.
‘Once the hysteria and the nature of the property has subsided then I think we can start looking at the other issues but I think to the extent that it is disrupting school. I’m hoping moving that issue out of the way can move the door open to a little more constructive dialogue and allow people to kind of do their thing which is what public parks and traditional public forums are all about,’ he said.
I’m a little confused. The high school has open lunch. Kids can come and go as they please. When they do, the SD has no authority over them and no responsibility for them. Even if the City revoked the mother’s lease, they could come and go at the park as they pleased, though one can imagine protestors trying to monopolize the pavilion just to spite them. Is that the sort of “constructive dialogue” about which Fleming speaks? To spite the mothers, might the City prohibit any use of the park during school hours? What a brilliantly constitutional use of public property that would be.
And of course, the young are learning the appropriate lessons about the Constitution:
Students who oppose the lunch say they will continue to protest as long as the event is held at Fireman’s Park.
Local kids and residents aren’t the only people seeking to keep the pot of animosity stirred, as Watchdog.org reports:
It doesn’t resolve the contention or divisiveness at all,’ said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. ‘It is just a phony resolution.’ Citing no evidence, she suggested the school district ‘must’ve been getting threats’ of lawsuits from the Jesus Lunch parents ‘and succumbed to them.
Gaylor appears to be unaware of the First Amendment; the title of her organization certainly suggests she might have little respect for it. She is also ignoring the facts of local law, and of the conduct of the mothers, in this situation. Remember, the school’s attorney called the SD’s authority to enforce its will in the park “questionable.” That’s legalese for “you have no such authority.” And that, gentle readers, is because of the First Amendment, local law, and the facts of the situation. No threats were required, though I suspect all of the lawyers involved could easily see a lawsuit coming, and all saw the inevitable outcome. Still, Gaylor can’t let it go:
So I think the superintendent caved, and the city kind of caved, too,’ Gaylor said. ‘This is not resolved and it is not going to go away because it caused too much division in the school. And we have suggested to the city they should give the property to the school and that would resolve it.
That’s not going to happen:
Davis explained that the deed requires that the site be used as a public park. ‘If it is not, it would revert back to the fire company,’ Davis said. [skip]
‘The city council is going to review use of the park for the potential to reduce the conflict next school year,’ Davis said. ‘So nothing’s set in stone. There will be a review process and until I know the results of that, we don’t know how it will affect possible lunches in the park by the Jesus Lunch group next year.’
Phillip Stamman, the attorney representing the Jesus Lunch organizers, said he is worried the city will single out his clients.
‘I think that there’s a big concern that there is still going to be an attempt by people that are part of the city government to try to change rules to prevent the women from attending this park,’ Stamman said. ‘Do I think that would be targeted hostility towards my client? I do.
Let’s review: No one has to attend a Jesus Lunch, but if they do, they have no obligation to participate in any religious exercise. The park pavilion is not a place of worship. There are no religious symbols displayed there. If a student wants to come after the very brief religious sharing and eat, that’s fine. If they want to grab lunch and leave before the sharing, that’s fine. All are welcome and all are shown genuine, no-strings-attached Christian kindness.
How do people protesting these lunches manage to keep their heads from exploding from the knowledge that there are, in their very community, many buildings called “churches,” which contain overt religious symbols, hold a variety of doctrines, and worship God in their own ways? Don’t they feel excluded, marginalized, even unsafe, as one student claimed to the City Council before it made its decision?
What is there to protest? What is there to review? The use of the park issue is dead. The Constitution is clear. Those bothered by the Jesus Lunches can, if they wish, sponsor competing events. I suspect the Jesus Lunch Mothers would welcome them and invite them to lunch, which would, of course, send them scurrying for safe spaces from which to plan protests.
Here’s my sage advice to Middleton: be glad there are adults willing to be kind to the kids, and at their own expense too. If you don’t like that, be an adult. Grow up; ignore it, just as we all must do for innumerable things we don’t like. They’re not hurting anyone, and I suspect the pavilion is cleaner after their lunches than before they arrived. No charge. You’re welcome.