The Freedom From Religion Foundation is asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture to adopt more safeguards to separate religion from a free summer lunch program.
The state/church watchdog, representing more than 20,000 members nationwide, called on Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to bring the Summer Food Service Program into compliance with executive directives that protect aid recipients from proselytizing.
FFRF lauded the program’s goal of feeding children, but noted the program is another case where “religion gets the credit and taxpayers get the bill.”
“Parents must not be forced to choose between their children going to religious ‘activities’ and their children not getting a proper meal,” FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote Vilsack. “Such religious coercion is unconstitutional.”
The federally funded food service and the organization’s religious activities are frequently combined, making it difficult for a family to opt out of religious propaganda if they want children to receive the free lunches. The program encourages providers, including churches, to accompany such meals with “educational, enrichment and recreational activities.”
The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service even gives as an example “faith-based organizations or churches that offer religious study day camp sessions.” Current USDA regulations and program materials don’t explicitly prohibit religious discrimination, and fail to mandate safeguards to keep religious activities separate from meals.
“Impressionable children are receiving federally funded meals in the same location as they receive religious instruction,” FFRF noted. “Churches should not be locations for children to receive free meals at public expense any more than they should be where low-income families must pick up SNAP EBT cards or college students sign up for federal loans,” Elliott added.
The USDA has also failed to give incentives to secular sites, much less to give preference to public schools, the ideal location for free lunch programs for young children.
An executive order specifies that religious activities be kept clearly separate from lunches provided using federal funding, but FFRF noted there is no monitoring required.