Wisconsin School District to End Lease of Park Where 'Jesus Lunches' Take Place
A Wisconsin school district will no longer have a lease on a public park where students gather for a weekly Bible study event known as the "Jesus Lunch."
Middleton City Council voted Tuesday evening to rescind the lease that Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District had on Fireman's Park, the location of the popular yet controversial events.
City Council's decision came at the request of Superintendent Don Johnson, who sent out a mass email Monday stating that he hoped the end of the lease equaled an end to the controversy.
"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 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."
In recent years a group of parents organized a weekly gathering at Fireman's Park known as the "Jesus Lunch," in which hundreds of students from the Middleton High School gathered for a meal and Bible study.
With the mission statement "Food for the body. Nutrition for the soul," the event garnered some opposition from school officials who were concerned about the gathering not adhering to various school policies.
Last month Superintendent Johnson and Middleton High School Principal Steve Plank sent out a letter to parents expressing the school district's concerns.
"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 the letter.
"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."
"Jesus Lunch" organizers countered that they were renting the public park and as a result were not bound to follow the rules of the school district.
"By law, the lease agreement between the city and the school district of Middleton does not privatize the park," read a statement from organizers.
"The city of Middleton has sent us a letter this week and acknowledged our rental agreement of the pavilion at Fireman's Park."
Debate over the "Jesus Lunch" became contentious, as protests and counter-protests took place at the Park over the weekly gathering.
The Madison, Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation joined the fray, siding with the school district and supporting the protesters, including by providing pizzas.
"As noted last week, 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."
Regarding the school district's recommendation to rescind the lease, the "Jesus Lunch" organizers released a statement expressing hope that this will end the divisive debate.
"Our goal this entire process has been to offer a positive and safe environment for any student to hear a Biblical truth," stated the organizers.
"We are thankful for the support we have been receiving and appreciate the willingness of local decision makers to work with us towards an effective solution."