Council votes to scrap park lease after Jesus Lunch debate

Council votes to scrap park lease after Jesus Lunch debate

Middleton City Council approved the school district’s plans to cancel its lease of Firemen’s Park. The park is located next to the high school. Because of concerns resulting from Jesus Lunches happening at the park every Tuesday, the district decided the best option would be to terminate the lease.

District Superintendent Don Johnson sent a letter to Middleton parents about the proposed cancellation Monday.

In the letter, Johnson said city attorney Matt Fleming indicated the city believes the school district’s authority to enforce school rules in Firemen’s Park is questionable, and the city has no interest in “litigation to resolve the ambiguities in the language.” Johnson said that even enhanced language that clarifies the issue may still result in legal expenses that will not benefit anyone.

Council went into closed session for close to 40 minutes to discuss the issue. Several students and community members urged council not to accept the proposal.

“I definitely don’t think this will solve the issue, because the real issue here is that students that are not of the Christian faith are feeling marginalized and excluded because this lunch only caters to the Christian faith,” said Middleton sophomore Peter Opitz.

The free lunch hosted by a group of parents who share Christian beliefs with students sparked debate of legal concerns and violating school policy. Under the lease, Jesus Lunch organizers can still hold events on the property during school hours. City Attorney Matt Fleming said terminating the lease will not make a huge impact.

“Terminating the lease doesn’t change the situations from the city’s perspective. It reduces the perception of people that this is school district property,” he said.

Fireman’s Park sits directly next to Middleton High School. The district started leasing the park from the city during school hours 16 years ago as an effort to curb student behavior that might be happening at the park.

However, a number of mothers initiated the so-called Jesus Lunches at the park about a year ago, which caused the school district to have some concerns. A group of mothers initiated the Jesus Lunch as a way to provide students at the school with access to Bible study during the school day, along with a meal. The group rents the park from the city, which allows them to host the lunches.

“It’s been really cool to see he overwhelming support who have gone out of their way to say thank you and we’ve gotten overwhelming support from parents in the community and it’s just a positive fun environment and good place to be on Tuesdays,” said Beth Williams, co-coordinator of Jesus Lunch.

Fleming said the with the ending of the lease the city could look at updating restrictions at the park, including discussing if groups should be allowed to reserve the park during school hours.

“Once the hysteria and the nature of the property has subsided then I think we can start looking at the other issues but I think to the extent that it is disrupting school. I’m hoping moving that issue out of the way can move the door open to a little more constructive dialogue and allow people to kind of do their thing which is what public parks and traditional public forums are all about,” he said.

Students who oppose the lunch say they will continue to protest as long as the event is held at Fireman’s Park.