USDA exempts religious schools from non-discrimination rules

Religious schools can get an automatic exemption from Title IX non-discrimination requirements and continue to receive federal funding for meals, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said.

Private and public schools participate in the National School Lunch Program, which funds meals for millions of students across the country.

In May, the USDA announced that schools participating in the NSLP must create policies prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation.

But after lawsuits from a religious school and conservative-run states, the USDA clarified Aug. 12 that religious schools participating in the NSLP can continue to allow discrimination against LGBTQ students and staff.

“USDA regulations do not require a religious educational institution to submit a written application for a Title IX exemption in order to claim this exemption,” the memo reads.

The controversy stems from debates around Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded education programs. Unlike the Trump administration, the Biden administration has interpreted Title IX to also prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The USDA announcement in May is consistent with Biden’s interpretation.

“State and local agencies, program operators, and sponsors who receive funding from [the Food and Nutrition Service] must investigate allegations of discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation,” read a May 5 press release.

“These organizations should also update their policies and non-discrimination signs to include prohibitions against discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.”

On July 26, twenty-two states signed a lawsuit against the USDA policy. Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita, who led the lawsuit alongside Tennessee Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III, claimed the Biden administration was denying food to low-income students unless ” schools do not respond to orders from the left”.

The states that signed the lawsuit are: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas , Utah, Virginia and West Virginia.

Grant Park Christian Academy, a religious school in Florida, also filed a lawsuit in late July seeking an exemption from the non-discrimination rules.

According to Alliance Defending Freedom, which has been designated an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the school received its exemption nine days after filing its complaint.

Now, religious schools receive this exemption without having to apply, although the USDA memo in August clarified that a school can submit a written request for recognition of its exemption if it wishes.

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