School officials in Wisconsin were caught on video trying to intimidate parents into closing down a weekly “Jesus Lunch” for hungry kids in a local park, and now the police are involved.
Mothers in Middleton have been hosting a Jesus Lunch 16 times per year since 2014 in Fireman’s Park. Students from Middleton High School, who may eat at local dining establishments, often choose a free lunch provided by the mothers. The religious message shared with meals was the catalyst for targeting the gathering, which has grown from a small handful of students to hundreds.
“We are asking you to allow our legal counsels to consider this together because this is certainly a question you contend is a First Amendment right,” Donald Johnson, the superintendent of the Middleton-Cross Plains district, recently said to the mothers after blocking the park entrance with hazard cones. “We contend that this is really an issue of our ability to exercise our lease for the city. We think that cooperation is really the way to go.”
Johnson was then presented with a letter from the group’s lawyer, another from the City of Middleton, and a lease agreement to use the park, the education watchdog EAGnews.org reported last Friday.
“[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 video also shows the Johnson simultaneously lamenting the parents’ lawyers while saying his desired resolution would entail their removal from the park.
“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,” lunch organizer Beth Williams said in a statement. “By law, the lease agreement between the city and the school district of Middleton does not privatize the park.”
The school district contends it has jurisdiction over the park because its lease applies to school hours.
“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.”
Middleton Police Department will now monitor Tuesday’s Jesus Lunch due to heightened tensions in the town.
“Reasonable people differ over the interpretation of the wording of the lease,” Police Chief Charles Foulke said April 15 on the department’s Facebook page. “I’m not worried about reasonable people, but I am concerned about unreasonable people, people who are using this issue for their own purposes and who are beginning to threaten good people on either side of this issue. Unless something unforeseen happens, the ‘Jesus Lunch’ is going to happen this Tuesday and will probably continue until the end of the school year. … Please do not assume that our presence in any way indicates a preference for any side in this issue other than to preserve the peace and allow people to exercise their 1st Amendment rights. … I hope it is not the students who teach the adults how to act.”
In addition to citing food-safety concerns, school officials sent an email to parents on April 12 saying, “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,” Fox News reported.
Principal Stephen Plank also attempted to denigrate the group by saying the Christians’ message has resulted in some students “sitting in the hallway crying” or leaving school early, the network reported.
Stamman told Fox that no form of harassment will deter the parents from hosting Jesus Lunch in the future.
“These women will not be intimidated,” Stamman said. “They are wholeheartedly committed to serving the students a free meal while sharing a Christian message.”