I’ve rarely felt so proud to be in a crowd of protesters as I was today in joining with a group of brave students at Middleton High School in Wisconsin protesting a weekly “Jesus Lunch” outside their public school. Several of us at our office — Ryan Jayne, Lisa Treu, Eleanor McEntee and Seth Wrinkle — attended the rousing rally at the public school, where the students invited us to attend their protest.
A loose coalition of parents, apparently evangelicals, have taken advantage of a leasing ambiguity to bribe high schoolers with a weekly free lunch virtually right outside the school back entrance, where a narrow park abuts the school grounds with a pavilion. The lunch bags invariably include a proselytizing token. Some weeks it’s Jesus pencils, or Jesus wristbands. Jesus Lunchers come back into the school flaunting their Jesus items, where this has become a source of friction, hard feelings and arguments.
The emotional demonstration and pushback we witnessed today was a perfect lesson in the divisiveness of religion in our public schools and why it doesn’t belong there — how religion in schools unnecessarily calls attention to differences and builds walls between students who would otherwise be friends.
Student Peter Opitz, who contacted the Freedom From Religion Foundation to invite us to today’s protest, identifies as a Christian, but is a firm supporter of separation of state and church. He’s put together a short, moving video of a variety of students with various and no religions, all identifying as “We are Middleton” to counter the exclusionary Jesus Lunch.
Peter also has started a petition and asks you to please sign it here.
The proselytizing parents are spending thousands of dollars feeding as many as 450 students a week, without parental notification or consent. This week’s lunch bag included a cheap yoyo in neon lettering, declaring “John 3: 16” on one side, and quoting the verse on the other: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believe in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Bibles and Jesus literature are regularly handed out.
A mother came up to us to say that the Jesus Lunch organizers once distributed face masks to the students, emblazoned with an obscure bible verse that seemed to be calling nonbelievers “wicked.” She said when these students returned to the school wearing the masks, it was alarming to the others.
We decided to take cookies and cupcakes to supplement the Jesus Lunch, and notified the district that we would be there. A Middleton woman so upset by the situation phoned our office yesterday, speaking with our Director of First Impressions Lisa Treu, and donated $100 to the cause, even though she is nominally a Christian. Her donation more than covered the cookies!
Attorney Ryan Jayne, who serves as FFRF’s Diane Uhl Legal Fellow, had already written a letter to the Middleton School District in support of the district’s position against the “Jesus Lunches.” The district has a lease with the city of Middleton over the park, which is non-exclusive. But the district has broad discretion. Attempts to get the parents to move the Jesus Lunch to another site have failed.
Soon after we arrived, hundreds of hungry students poured out and and made a bee line to the Jesus Lunch pavilion to chow down. But some soon diverted over to us, with welcoming smiles and protest signs at the ready. What started off slowly gradually became a full-blown demonstration.
The students led a variety of chants, including “Hey hey, ho ho, Jesus Lunch has got to go,” and “Converting kids isn’t so great — Separate the church and state,” never quite being drowned out by the Jesus crowd yelling back, “Jesus lunch, Jesus lunch!” A man with a dog came by to lend his support. His dog endearingly woofed along as we chanted. The man said his dog belongs to “DFSOCAS.” When I asked him what that stood for, he replied, “Dogs for Separation of Church & State.”
At its height there were hundreds of kids on opposite sides in close proximity, chanting at each other. For a moment or two, it looked like it might grow out of control. But the worst that happened were Jesus Lunchers making signs of the cross (and waving a middle finger) at the protesters, and throwing a few cookies. Also present were some area FFRF members, a Jewish couple with a student in the Middleton middle school, and parents with homemade signs:
What really made me proud were the remarks by protesting students.
Peter, the primary organizer, spoke first.
A young man got up and said he was both an atheist and a Jew. A petite student who identified as Muslim got up, near tears, to express how the Jesus Lunch made her feel like an outsider. (It was dismaying to see some of the Jesus Lunch crowd smile smugly as a number of students got up to express how uncomfortable the lunch makes them feel. But perhaps those smiles covered embarrassment. I am sure this event created a little cognitive dissonance.)
FFRF will be writing the city of Middleton urging them to clarify and amend the contract with the school district, so that it can protect student from adults seeking access for whatever reason to students during school hours. Let’s hope reason will prevail. If these feisty and compassionate student protesters are a taste of the direction the next generation is taking, it’s a sign reason will prevail far more in the future.