Lunch tables at 'Jesus Lunch'

Hundred of Middleton High School students eat a free meal during an April 'Jesus Lunch' in a city park adjacent to the school. Though there is a brief religious message delivered during the weekly meal, supporters say the event is open to everyone and does not discriminate.

Summer break appears to have dampened the most visible protests to a weekly faith-based luncheon held adjacent to Middleton High School.

After a groundswell of opposition led to verbal clashes between students last spring, "Jesus Lunch" resumed Tuesday in Firemen's Park with minimal resistance.

Melissa Helbach, one of the parent organizers of the weekly lunches, said about 450 students gathered for the brown bag meal and a message about the Bible serving as a "road map for life."

But unlike the spring lunches that drew hordes of student protesters, only a couple men -- not students -- turned out to oppose the gathering Tuesday, Middleton-Cross Plains School District spokesman Perry Hibner said.

The school district had a lease for Firemen's Park during school hours until May, when it canceled its non-exclusive agreement with the city, seeking to rid itself of some controversy over jurisdiction and religious activity during school hours.

The previous arrangement created disagreement among Jesus Lunch organizers, their opponents, and city and school officials about whether the district's policies -- particularly regarding religious activity -- applied in the park during school hours.

Now, officials from both the city and school district have found themselves in somewhat of a holding pattern.

Without the park lease, the school district has halted its efforts to end the lunches. Instead, Hibner said, the topic could spur teacher-led conversations about inclusion and tolerance in classrooms.

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The city, which allowed the lunches to continue over concerns about stifling First Amendment rights, also has treaded carefully. City Council members met in closed session last month to discuss "litigation in which the city is or is likely to become involved" regarding the use of Firemen's Park.

City administrator Mike Davis said no lawsuit has been filed against the city but added that the lunches continue to be a significant source of calls and emails to his staff. 

"We still hear from people on a fairly regular basis," he said. "We had a public records request from Freedom From Religion Foundation, queries from Christian radio stations, reporters and from parents. It has been an ongoing source of contention for many."

The City Council's decision to seek legal counsel in closed session was a proactive measure, prompted largely by the Freedom From Religion Foundation's request for records of correspondence between Jesus Lunch organizers and the city. The city approved returning those records to the group on Thursday, Davis said.

"The city has received public records requests, which are often the first step in a legal challenge. That's cause enough for concern to go into closed session to talk about legal strategies," he said.

Helbach said her group has reserved the Firemen's Park pavilion for Tuesday lunches through the end of October. She was unsure why large-scale protests emerged last spring and why they mostly dissipated for the fall semester.

"We've asked ourselves that question. The Jesus Lunch has been going on for several years," Helbach said. "We're not exactly sure why it became such an issue."

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