Middleton High School students sit together at Jesus Lunch in 2016.

A religious group that sparked protests in 2016 for providing free lunches to Middleton High School students with a dose of Christian scripture has expanded to schools in Madison and Verona.

Students from those schools "asked us for a couple of years to do that," said organizer Melissa Helbach after serving up pizza to about 30 Verona Area High School kids at Harriet Park, located two blocks from the school. On Monday, the group served about 20 kids at the city soccer fields located across Mineral Point Road from Madison Memorial High.

Tuesday lunches take place at the original venue of Fireman's Park, adjacent to Middleton High School, where as many as 600 kids lined up for food last year, and where "hundreds" showed up this week, according to Helbach. 

"Our first week is always lower," she said. 

Jesus Lunch was formed by five “moms” in 2014. But it captured media attention in 2016 when students opposed to it contacted the Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, which held an alternative event with pizza, but no scripture. 

As was probably inevitable, the two groups clashed.  

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the foundation, said students complained that the Middleton event sowed deep divisions within the high school, causing tension between overtly Christian students and those with more secular views. The event also drew opposition from some parents. 

She equated the effort to “offering candy to children.”

“It’s very distressing to see this opportunistic, really predatory proselytizing behavior,” Gaylor said.

Helbach said she's gotten only support from parents, the community, and little pushback from students.  

"It wasn’t a big mass amount of kids at the high school where they felt like it was divisive," she said. "It was a handful of kids."

During one event in 2016, students reportedly launched fruit at one another and a heated exchange erupted into a shoving match.

Gaylor said the event has obvious implications for constitutional separations between church and state, which was also a concern for city and school officials. The Middleton-Cross Plains School District used to lease the park space where the Jesus Lunch is held. The district eventually asked the city to rescind the lease because of those concerns. 

But even more worrisome, Gaylor said, is the practice of luring school kids to a religious event with free food.

“What these mothers are doing is terribly divisive and opportunistic to the point where they should be ashamed of themselves,” she said. “Now they’re spreading it to other schools and it’s going to cause even more divisiveness and acrimony, and they’re going to be getting a lot of pushback.”

Jesus Lunch organizers are seeking $40,000 in funding for the 2019-20 school year, $15,000 of which has already been raised.

Helbach said donations are coming from "various people." 

"It just comes from someone giving $100, someone giving $1,000," she said. "It really has come in, not only from the Madison area, but even nationwide."

Helbach said the lunches in Verona are being held a couple of blocks away from the high school in public park space. But the group has to have a permit to use the park's pavilion, which will be needed in case of inclement weather. 

According to Verona Area School District spokeswoman Kelly Kloepping, Jesus Lunch organizers applied for a permit to use the Harriet Park pavilion for six consecutive Wednesdays starting on Sept. 25. The Parks Board is scheduled to consider the application at its Sept. 18 meeting.

Gaylor said the foundation got involved in the Middleton controversy at the request of students, but backed off when students said the group's presence was fueling the controversy. 

“They just thought we should drop it because there was so much division,” she said of the students.

She said the Jesus Lunch organizers are taking advantage of a “captive audience” by offering food to hungry students with the aim of pushing religion.

She predicted the effort to expand will prompt a strong response, especially at Memorial, where she said, “you’re dealing with a very highly educated population of parents, high-achieving students.”

But she said a number of students will undoubtedly be drawn by the promise of a meal.

“There’s always going to be those hungry students who want a free lunch,” she said.

Helbach said no one's forcing anybody to come.

"It’s optional if a kid wants to come," she said. "And we welcome anyone who wants to come and learn about the Bible."

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.