In what some might be the next standoff over religious liberty, a high school near Madison, Wisconsin is at odds with an off-campus student lunch group over the right to hold free, Jesus-themed lunches.

Fox News explains:

[Middleton] 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.’”

As students started inviting more friends to attend, the gatherings have brought as many as 400 hundred students to the lunches, which are held at a park directly next to the school campus.

The lunches have since been referred to as “Jesus lunches.” The five parents organizing the lunches say students are handed a free meal that is eaten at the park’s pavilion. At some point during the meal, a “two to five minute” biblical message is given.

When asked whether students were required to listen to the biblical portion of the event in order to receive lunch, mother Melissa Helbach insisted the answer was no. “It’s all by choice,” she said in an interview on Friday. “We are there to love up on the kids. If you want to hear some biblical truth, come along. If you don’t, that’s fine.” Helbach added that it’s not uncommon for students to come, grab a sack lunch, and leave before the spiritual message begins.

For the first year, everything between school administrators and students and parents of the Jesus lunch was fine. In October of last year, however, school principal Steve Plank paid the group a visit claiming the group was not allowed to hold lunches at the park due to a lease agreement the school district holds with the City of Middleton. Because the agreement allows for the school to use the park during school hours, school administration claims the park is therefore school property.

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.”

On the issue of food safety, the email said:

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

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:

“The question here is not us being in opposition to the school, but rather that we have a right to be in Fireman’s 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. By law, the lease agreement between the city and the School District of Middleton does not privatize the park. The City of Middleton has sent us a letter this week and acknowledged our rental agreement of the pavilion at Fireman’s Park.”

As the statement says, the Jesus lunch does have its own rental agreement with the city for use of the park. The group pays $40 per week for use of the park pavilion on Tuesdays. Because Middleton High School allows all students to leave campus during lunch, the group insists that food safety is of no legal concern to the school district due to the fact the lunches are held off campus. If the school has no problem with students leaving campus for lunch at the McDonalds or Culver’s down the street, why should it care about five mothers handing out sack lunches?

Amidst mounting pressure from school administration to end the lunches, the group has since sought legal representation. “This is a group of five ladies who are mothers of some of the high school students, attorney Phillip Stamman said to WISN. These mothers love their kids and they love the students — so much so that they give up hours out of their day to cook high quality, home cook meals [and] hand them out for free.” Stamman believes the district is trying to intimidate the group and is going after the Jesus lunch not because of concerns for food safety or usage of Fireman’s Park but because the group spreads a Christian message.

When asked what he hopes to achieve, Stamman said the goal is not to go to court, however, “If the school district keeps blocking them and keeps harassing my clients, my clients have the right to exercise their first amendment and that won’t be denied.” Later on, Stamman added, “To be honest, I think this really comes down to control.”

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