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Religious lunch event causing tension between organizers and Middleton school officials

Religious lunch event causing tension between organizers and Middleton school officials

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A regular free lunch event that includes Christian religious teachings has created controversy at Middleton High School.

The noontime meetings, known as “Jesus Lunches” by some students, have been organized by a handful of parents since fall 2014. While it started small, with parents inviting their own children and their friends to sit outside for free food and spiritual talks, it has expanded to a much larger event, putting the organizers and district administrators in conflict over its legality, according to an email district officials sent to parents Tuesday.

Superintendent Donald Johnson and high school Principal Stephen Plank wrote that they have voiced concerns to the organizers and asked for an end to the lunches, which take place across from the school at Fireman’s Park.

The school district leases the park during school hours, the email said, so policies that apply to the school campus extend to the park during that time. Those include rules about food safety and food preparation, food allergy procedures and visitor policies.

“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 email said. “In addition, many students have conveyed to us their concern about a group offering free food to incentivize participation in a religious event on campus.”

Officials did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

A statement from the organizers provided by parent Beth Williams asserted the group is legally allowed to hold the lunch at the park and said students aren’t required to participate in the religious message portion to partake in the food. “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,” the statement said. “By law, the lease agreement between the city and the school district of Middleton does not privatize the park.”

Plank and Johnson said in the email to parents that the organizers have threatened legal action against the school district.

Amy Kortbein, the mother of an eighth-grader in the district, said she has spoken with parents concerned about the lunches.She said their location and timing during the school day “is what’s making me very uncomfortable.”

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