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High School Demands End to Off-Campus Christian Lunch Group

High School Demands End to Off-Campus Christian Lunch Group

“To be honest, I think this really comes down to control.”

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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“To be honest, I think this really comes down to control.”

Yep. Every day, in every way, and everywhere.

The struggle is for liberty v. tyranny and degrees of each.

I wonder what the principal would do, if it were a group of Muslims doing the same thing?

    You accidentally capitalized “muslim”

    genes in reply to rinardman. | April 16, 2016 at 11:26 am

    Keep his mouth shut.

    You already know what he would do. He’d “celebrate diversity” and encourage all students to attend.

    Subotai Bahadur in reply to rinardman. | April 16, 2016 at 12:01 pm

    He would use school funds to furnish a PA system for the Muslim [Yes I capitalized it. It is a proper name. It is the name of the enemy, but it is a name.] call to prayer.

    BillyHW in reply to rinardman. | April 16, 2016 at 12:06 pm

    If this was a group of muslims they would have already converted the pavillion into a mosque for them, given them complete control over who gets to use the park, and banned the Christian students from eating any pork products inside the school cafeteria.

    And you all know it.

    If it were Muslims, the principal would show himself as deserving of a JFK Profile-in-Putty Award.

    Milhouse in reply to rinardman. | April 17, 2016 at 1:25 am

    You and the commenters who agreed with you are all showing your paranoia. You have no basis for believing he’d do anything different if it were a Moslem group. You are simply making up a paranoid persecution myth because you are a paranoid freak. There is no verified case of any school district in the USA that has treated Christianity worse than Islam.

      Subotai Bahadur in reply to Milhouse. | April 17, 2016 at 12:37 pm

      Carver Elementary School, San Diego. 1) Teacher’s aide leading all students in Muslim prayer. 2) “special recess” for Muslim students to allow them to pray. At the same time Christian symbols and prayers are banned.

      Dearborn, Michican Public Schools allowing student led Muslim prayers in schools and absences for Muslim students to attend Friday prayer services.

      Court decisions allowing Muslim prayer and indoctrination during school hours, while anything Christian is banned.

      Took about a 30 second search online, and there are dozens more entries about different acts.

      If the school is to be religiously neutral, then either the same accommodations should be made and accepted for Christians, or no accommodations made.

        Milhouse in reply to Subotai Bahadur. | April 17, 2016 at 1:24 pm

        Did you actually read any of those links? None of them cite even one case of a school district where Islam is treated better than Christianity or any other religion.

        Students of all religions are entitled to reasonable accommodation of their religious needs. In the case of Moslem and Jewish students one necessary accommodation, at least in the winter, is a few minutes’ recess at the appropriate times for prayer. Xian students don’t need such an accommodation, because they have no fixed prayer times. Similarly when schools were open on Saturdays, and Jewish and SDA students didn’t have to show up, that was not favoritism, it was a reasonable and necessary accommodation that Xian students didn’t need because the schools were already closed on Sundays.

Sue the district! Since it’s a clear first amendment violation, it’s a mistake to wait to do that.

assemblerhead | April 16, 2016 at 10:53 am

It is an matter of control for the school. Controlling what the students believe in, that is.

Its probably an Atheist in the School District Administration. They need to find out who got ( hired on / got appointed ) recently. If there was a school board election recently, take a good look at them as well.

A long as the kids have a choice to come/go, eat/not eat, stay/leave, off campus, its none of the school district business.

There is a probable reason this did not happen at a school with a church next door. That would have made their goal a little too obvious.

    gmac124 in reply to assemblerhead. | April 16, 2016 at 11:25 am

    “Its probably an Atheist in the School District Administration. They need to find out who got ( hired on / got appointed ) recently. If there was a school board election recently, take a good look at them as well.”

    Not necessarily true that a change in personnel lead to the conflict. I am sure when it first started it was small and not seen as a threat. As the size of the group and the message was spread they believed the group would run its course and end with the school year. When the group returned the next year the administration felt threatened and reacted. From what is listed here the school doesn’t have a leg to stand on and should be put in their place. Hopefully if it goes to court they don’t draw a judge like the one that ruled against the right to work law.

      Subotai Bahadur in reply to gmac124. | April 16, 2016 at 12:06 pm

      They need to sue the school, and name the administrators as co-defendents, in Federal court as well as in state courts. State courts are a risk in Wisconsin, because they are controlled completely by the Democrat Party. But in Federal court you can sue under 42 USC 1983, “denial or violation of civil rights under color of law”. That is one of the few cases where Sovereign Immunity does not protect the government body AND the individuals who did it are not covered by Sovereign Immunity and can be held personally liable for damages.

      No Quarter.

      assemblerhead in reply to gmac124. | April 16, 2016 at 12:09 pm

      A smart thing to do would be to check anyways. The key is finding out who or what is pushing this.

      A targeted counter action is always more effective. ( i.e. find the root and rip it out ).

I’d bet that the school principal and superintendent just assumed the parents/organizers would comply because of their authority / status and will probably back off quickly. Not that there’s any real repercussions for officials when they overstep their authority and have to rein it back in since we all pay their legal fees.

400 student lunches a week that the school doesn’t get Fed funds for. 400 lunches that the kids like to eat, makes those compliant meals at school seem like the garbage they are.

    stevewhitemd in reply to genes. | April 16, 2016 at 1:09 pm

    Yup. As the famous man said, “follow the money.”

    The per diem reimbursement for a school lunch ranges from $1.50 to $3.50 per meal, depending on the income level in the district, what kind of meal is served, etc. Say $2.50 per child. Say all 400 children participated. That is $1,000 per day, $5,000 per week, $180,000 per school year.

    Now that might not be a lot of money in the grand scheme of things, but it’s the sort of thing a school will try to fix right away — after all, what if MORE parents decided to let their kids go to the Jesus Lunch? What if the parents then decided that they didn’t need the public school at all? You can see how bad this would be for a public school administrator.

    Follow the money.

The rental agreement with the 5 parents would indicate that the CITY doesn’t believe the school district has control of it.

    Right. The lease agreement between the City and the school district means the school may use park grounds (say, the soccer field) for school purposes during school hours, but the rental agreement with the parents would indicate that the City still controls the facilities.

    If a wedding party rented the grounds (including the fields) for an outdoor ceremony, something tells me that rental would similarly override the lease agreement (heck, the lease agreement probably has a clause or two to that effect that the school is not admitting to). And something else tells me the school wouldn’t have a problem with that.

    The school administrators are grasping at straws on that point.

“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?”

LOL. And we know there have never been any food-handling safety issues at fast food joints, right? But if somebody’s mom is making the lunches, she’s sure to poison them!

Pretty sad that these school administrators, who probably have multiple academic degrees, can’t even come up with plausible pretexts behind which to hide their obvious anti-Christian biases.

    I can’t speak to Wisconsin law, but here in Oregon it’s not a “food safety” regulatory issue unless and until the moms are selling the sack lunches. On items given out for free, there’s some liability after-the-fact if someone gets sick, but little-to-no regulation up-front. And as far as I’m aware this has never been a problem.

    But then there’s also the question: After serving free lunches to 400 kids a week for a year, has anyone actually gotten sick? No? Then there’s no problem.

    (Also, if it were Oregon it’d be a trivial matter for the moms to get food-handler certifications, which would help their case somewhat but still wouldn’t create liability that doesn’t exist for items given out free-of-charge.)

Richard Aubrey | April 16, 2016 at 11:53 am

Some years ago, after a school system had done something even more egregious, i.e. even the ACLU thought it was okay, as did the Dept of Ed, I inquired of a principal I knew if there was such a thing as a Pub Ed Admin’s quarterly or some such publication.
Where we would find articles on what was allowed and what not. On how not to look like a freaking idiot and tin pot Napoleon and cost the school district a lot of money plus public support.
No. There isn’t.

One staff member said that on that day there are students in the hall crying.
Oh yeah…That is TOTALLY believable.
Also. You have to wonder who is really calling that “Jesus Lunch”.
My guess is that whoever coined that phrase does not mean it as a compliment.

    genes in reply to NeoKong. | April 16, 2016 at 2:50 pm

    Might be crying because they had to eat the school lunch of tofu and dried seaweed.

      Arminius in reply to genes. | April 16, 2016 at 9:07 pm

      The kids in my district would be overjoyed to get tofu.

      As it is they get grass clippings between two chips of tree bark.

Of course, the next step by the school will be to stop allowing students to leave campus for lunch. And no court in the land will keep them from doing that.

    Milhouse in reply to RToy. | April 17, 2016 at 1:29 am

    And properly so. If they want to implement such a neutral policy, on what grounds could or should any court interfere?

      But could they keep kids from heading to the adjacent park during lunch, after the school already admitted they have a lease agreement with the City to use it for school purposes?

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.

Well, that’s nice of them, but shouldn’t be relevant. If they wanted to make listening to their message the price of the lunch, that’s their constitutionally protected right. So long as kids are not given the impression that the school endorses their message, there’s no conflict with the establishment clause.

Progressive Fascism is a religion and the duty of the school administrators and teachers is to create good little Progressive Fascist true believers. They have to stop this religious activitie because it conflicts with Progressive Fascism.

The Big Lie is, you’re supposed to believe the school administration is concerned about food safety and not acting because the religious message is annoying some parents (and perhaps some school staff).

Does anyone believe that?

Even facially neutral policies have been challenged (and sometimes prevailed) in court, when it’s apparent that the neutrality is a fig leaf (oops, religions reference) to conceal the real purpose of a restrictive policy.

    jcarter50 in reply to Albigensian. | April 20, 2016 at 12:44 am

    Oh, you mean like requiring abortion clinics to observe the same standards as outpatient surgery centers and requiring abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at a hospital passed in the name of protecting the health of the pregnant women? That kind of fig leaf concealing the real purpose of those restrictive policies?

Though a lot turns on the exact language of the leases, it would appear to me that unless there’s a state law or local ordinance limiting the ability of cities to lease out parks, the attorney for the Jesus Lunch people is probably wrong when he says, “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.” Local newspaper and TV reports say that, “The district provided 27 News a copy of the lease agreement, which allows the district to have joint control and jurisdiction of the park, including the right to enforce district rules and regulations. A sign posted at the park indicates school rules are to be followed during school hours.” It also appears that the lease may be nonexclusive, however, even during school hours, which means that other people can use it subject to school rules and regulations. There’s no question that the city could have given the school exclusive use of the park and kept everyone else out. (For example, when there’s a civic auditorium owned by a city they can certainly lease it to a concert promoter who can keep anyone out who doesn’t have a ticket. Or the city could have leased a concession stand in the park to someone and given them the right for only their employees to enter the stand.) If they can do that, then they can certainly lease this park to the school with the agreement that the rest of the public can use it, but only if they abide by school rules. One of those rules can certainly be that only school-registered student organizations can use the park (but they have to allow student religious organizations if they allow other kinds of organizations). Another can be that school-registered organizations who serve food must follow certain food regulations (though I suspect that they don’t require the chess club to have health permits when they serve snacks or have a bake sale, and might not be able to do much here). They can also limit non-faculty adult participation in registered organizations’ on-campus activities (again, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is extensive adult participation in some organizations which might also limit their ability to restrict adult activity here), but they cannot probably prevent the adults from merely being there in the park while the organization is having its lunch even if there is a general rule about adults not being on school property without permission. (I suppose that they might require all non-students, including adults, to jump through the bureaucratic hoop of asking for permission to be in the park, but their deal with the city would probably require them to promptly give that permission to everyone who asks for it.) With this analysis, I suspect that if the kids organized this as a student organization and limited the adult involvement to off-campus planning and delivering the lunches to the organization at the curb of the public street and then just hanging around in the park without participating further while the kids put on the luncheon that the school would be hard-pressed to stop it legally. Something very much like that is what’s done in many, if not most, “meet me at the flagpole” events.

    mochajava76 in reply to jcarter50. | April 22, 2016 at 12:33 pm

    jcarter50; you might have some great things to add to the conversation, but the lack of white space discourages me from reading it In the future, please consider using some paragraph breaks.

    I’m older and my eyes aren’t what they used to be

When the principal says it’s an issue of “food safety,” what he means is he’s been triggered into his safe space at the thought of students choosing against liberal totalitarianism. He’s afraid their choice for liberty will spread to other schools, and result in significant numbers of students choosing freedom over the stranglehold of Liberal Academia.

He’s also afraid he will lose funding from Michelle Obama’s Leftist Kale Kommunism Lunch program. Fewer lunchroom employees will be needed, meaning the unions may threaten his own job.

He’s definitely not thinking of “The Children!”