Biblical messages were replaced by chanting and yelling as growing turbulence over weekly “Jesus Lunch” events held outside Middleton High School spilled over into the luncheon itself.
Hundreds of students congregated in Fireman’s Park Tuesday either to partake in the faith-based luncheon or to spar with fellow students over what some perceive as an encroachment of religion into public schools.
Chants of “Jesus Lunch, Jesus Lunch” and “Separation of church and state” emerged from a mass of teenagers, who fought the latest round in a dispute over the religious luncheon’s relation to the school.
Since 2014, the luncheons have been organized by a group of parents and held in a park adjacent to the high school, but swelling attendance piqued interest from students, parents and secular groups, prompting school district administrators to call for an end to the lunches in the park last week.
Fireman’s Park, however, is owned by the city and used by the district through a non-exclusive lease agreement and that arrangement has created disagreement among lunch organizers, their opponents, city and school district officials about whether the school district’s policies apply in the park during school hours.
Adhering to the opinion of the city attorney, Middleton officials granted organizers of Jesus Lunch an event permit, but Tuesday’s luncheon was far from typical, attracting a sizable student protest backed by the secular advocacy group, Freedom From Religion Foundation.
The vast majority of students ate alongside their friends on picnic tables inside the the park’s pavilion, but at any given time throughout Middleton’s two lunch periods, as much as a third of the people gathered around the foundation’s table at the south end of the pavilion, where a handful of protesters took turns speaking atop a picnic table.
Included in the group of protesters was Joshua Biatch, an 18-year-old senior, who identifies ethnically as Jewish but considers himself atheist.
“I hear people saying it’s bringing the community together; it clearly isn’t,” Biatch said. “This event is designed purely for Christian students and that creates divisions between Christians and every other student.
“People keep saying, “Oh, this isn’t a big deal. It’s been blown out of proportion.’ They are always white, Christian people. … I have had to defend myself and explain myself so many times this week. People don’t get it because people don’t think beyond themselves.”
As Biatch and others spoke, a scrum around the table that included both protesters and supporters of Jesus Lunch reacted with a variety of cheers and jeers. A few clementines from lunches flew, and there was a brief shoving incident that quickly dispersed amid calls to “remain peaceful.” It was unclear who instigated the fighting.
Sophomore Jarrett Horst, 16, stood with a couple friends near the back of a counter-protest. A self-identifying Christian and member of Blackhawk Church, Horst said he regularly attends the luncheon and views it as a chance to relax, enjoy a nice meal and hear an uplifting message.
Horst agreed with protesters that Jesus Lunch has become divisive topic at school, but disputed the notion that proselytizing is a primary goal of the meal.
“They only teach a passage about God for about five minutes and we just go back to eating,” Horst said. “I don’t see anything wrong with it. They allow anybody to come. Anybody can just come here and eat food. You don’t have to learn about the Bible. Obviously this is getting kind of out of hand.”
Junior Camilla Vellon, 17, said she wasn’t initially alarmed by Jesus Lunch because it started as a group of children and their own parents, but the growth of the free lunch changed her mind and on Tuesday, Vellon was excused by her mother to attend the protest during both lunch periods.
“It’s a very isolated situation that can make other groups feel uncomfortable, whether it’s atheists, Muslims or Budhists,” Vellon said, adding that the topic has created heated arguments in school and on social media.
Melissa Helbach, a lead organizer of the lunch, said the meal is typically attended by about 400 students. In light of the controversy, organizers prepared for as many as 1,000, but Helbach would not say how many lunches were distributed.
School district spokesman Perry Hibner said administrators stayed inside during the luncheon and only planned to intervene if things got out of hand.
Middleton Police Chief Charles Foulke said he did not see the incident but said the event went well overall.
“Democracy gets a little messy sometimes and this was a little messy,” he said.
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