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Current Page: U.S. | Friday, June 17, 2016
'Jesus Lunch' Controversy: Wisconsin City Holds Public Hearing on Whether to Allow Weekly Bible Study

'Jesus Lunch' Controversy: Wisconsin City Holds Public Hearing on Whether to Allow Weekly Bible Study

Dozens speak for and against the "Jesus Lunch" weekly gathering at a hearing held Tuesday, June 16, 2016 by the Parks Recreation & Forestry Commission and the License & Ordinance Committee of Middleton, Wisconsin. | (Photo: Screengrab/nbc15.com)

Dozens of residents of a Wisconsin city offered their opinions on whether or not a public park situated near a high school should allow a parent-led weekly event called the "Jesus Lunch."

The "Jesus Lunch" is an unofficial gathering held each Tuesday at Fireman's Park for students of nearby Middleton High School of the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District.

School officials have argued that the lunches were not adhering to school policies, like proper food preparation, while organizers countered that since Fireman's Park is a public park, they were not obligated to strictly follow school policies.

The meeting held Tuesday by Middleton's Parks Recreation & Forestry Commission and the License & Ordinance Committee had approximately 100 in attendance, with both sides providing feedback.

Mike Davis, Middleton City Administrator, told The Christian Post that the meeting focused on a memo calling for specific standards for Fireman's Park since the school district was planning to end its lease.

The memo called for specific guidelines for Fireman's Park, including no smoking, no drinking, no amplified sound, and no park shelter rental. The last of these recommendations was seen by some as specifically targeting the "Jesus Lunch" gathering.

Students eating at the weekly gathering known as "Jesus Lunch", held at Fireman's Park in Middleton, Wisconsin. | (Photo: Beth Williams)

"About 100 citizens were in attendance and about 30 residents provided public comment to the committees after which the PRFC recommended that the City ordinance governing Firemen's Park would prohibit alcohol, smoking and amplified sound during school hours on school days," explained Davis.

"The License & Ordinance Committee did not make a recommendation at this time, and they will study the matter further this summer."

Davis also told CP that the next steps are yet to be determined due to the License & Ordinance Committee not reaching a decision on the City Council's memo.

"Until the Council receives a recommendation from both committees, I don't anticipate scheduling this matter for a Council meeting," continued Davis.

"I would anticipate that the earliest a recommendation might be forthcoming would be at the July 19 Council meeting."

Last year, parents of students at Middleton High School began overseeing a weekly luncheon centered around biblical discussion at Fireman's Park, a public park leased by the School District.

Commonly called the "Jesus Lunch," the weekly event brought hundreds of students to the adjacent park during their lunch break.

The weekly event garnered controversy, as school officials expressed concern that the weekly lunches were not following an assortment of school district guidelines.

"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," read a letter sent by school officials to parents in April.

"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."

The debate over the "Jesus Lunch" events came to the point that protesters began to show up, which were supported in part by the Madison-based group the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

"… we don't think any adults, whether missionaries or atheists, should be allowed to move in upon what is essentially a captive audience of students," stated FFRF co-president Anne Laurie Gaylor.

"But if the 'Jesus Lunches' aren't going to be stopped, the Freedom From Religion Foundation plans to be there too, providing some balance — and some fuel to the protesters."

In May, the Middleton City Council voted to rescind the park lease for the school district, with the expectation that the matter would be resolved and the "Jesus Lunches" could continue.

"City attorney Matt Fleming has indicated that the city believes the District's authority to enforce school rules in Fireman's Park is questionable, and that the city has no interest in litigation to resolve the ambiguities in the language," wrote Middleton School District Superintendent Don Johnson, as reported by local media.

"Further, discussions have indicated that even enhanced language that clarifies the issues in question may still result in legal expenses that are not in the best interests of any of the parties involved."

Regarding the Tuesday committee meeting, Superintendent Johnson told CP that he believed it was an "open and orderly hearing" with different viewpoints expressed that was "a refreshing change from the national trends in our presidential election."

"The Chief of Police and the City Administrator did propose that the park restrict alcohol, tobacco, and
amplification during the school day. They also recommended not leasing the pavilion for events during school days. All recommendations were made to limit disruptions to the school environment and the instructional day," added Johnson.

"It should be noted that these restrictions would not prevent freedom of speech, freedom of religion, or freedom of assembly. The Jesus Lunches could still be held without a permit for groups under 200."

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