School administrators in Middleton, Wisconsin have intensified their threats and intimidation of a group of mothers who host a weekly “Jesus Lunch” for students at a park adjacent to Middleton High School.
New video shows school officials physically confronting one of the moms in the park — as one woman’s stunned husband observes from a distance. The moms were undeterred and told school officials they were going to serve lunch regardless of their objections.
“These ongoing attempts to suppress free speech by school officials are disgraceful,” said Phillip Stamman, an attorney representing the moms. “These mothers devote hours each week to serving the students with free meals and a brief message about Jesus. They should not be bullied or harassed — but praised.”
Stamman said his clients have been repeatedly threatened by school officials - but they refuse to comply with their demands to cease the non-denominational religious gathering.
“These women will not be intimidated,” he told me. “They are wholeheartedly committed to serving the students a free meal while sharing a Christian message.”
I first wrote about the “Jesus Lunch” controversy earlier this week. So allow me to give you a brief primer on the hullabaloo.
Students at Middleton High School are permitted to eat lunch off campus. So go to McDonalds. Others go to Taco Bell. And some students eat at Fireman’s Park, a public park adjacent to the school campus.
In 2014, a group of moms started what would become known as the “Jesus Lunch.” They would prepared home-cooked meals for their children and conclude the lunch with an inspirational Christian message.
Over the years, the “Jesus Lunch” grew into a massive weekly event — with nearly 500 kids voluntarily attending.
But the school district wants to shut down the gathering — and as evidenced by the video — they will do anything to make sure that eventually happens.
“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,” the pair wrote in an email sent to parents on April 12.
The district accused the moms of violating all sorts of rules — especially in the area of food preparation. They implied the parents are putting their children in danger by hosting the weekly picnics.
“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.”
The district said parents are ignoring “food handling standards.”
“Food of any kind that is served to students must be approved by the school/district to ensure food safety, cleanliness and health,” they wrote. “In addition, many students are subject to food allergies, so additional protocols must be followed to safeguard students with these conditions.”
Principal Stephen Plank even accused the moms of luring students to the park with promises of free food in exchange for a Christian message.
“Many students have conveyed to us their concern about a group offering free food to incentivize participation in a religious event on campus,” he told News8000.com. “The result of which has a divisive impact on our learning community.”
The principal suggested that some students loathe the event so much they become hysterical.
“There are some students that when they know this day is coming, they will leave school early,” he told the news organization. “We have some students that staff will find sitting in the hallway crying.”
His remarks left me incredulous. I thought public schools provided “safe space” so youngsters could be shielded from opinions or concepts they don’t agree with?
The district also believes that the public park is technically a part of the campus. They have a lease agreement with the city that allows them to use the park during school hours. So the district contends the moms and their offspring are technically on school property.
“The parents contend that it is their First Amendment Right to provide free food and hold a religiously oriented event on this property during school hours,” the administrators wrote. “The District believes that we have jurisdiction of this leased property, which is part of our campus.”
The moms believe that even though there is a lease agreement — that doesn’t make the public space off-limits.
“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,” they wrote in a statement. “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.”
So hence, the standoff — between the goodhearted moms and a bunch of public school administrative bullies who don’t under the concept of free speech or religious liberty.
Todd Starnes is host of Fox News & Commentary, heard on hundreds of radio stations. His latest book is "God Less America: Real Stories From the Front Lines of the Attack on Traditional Values." Follow Todd on Twitter @ToddStarnes and find him on Facebook.