The U.S. Department of Agriculture has regrettably decided to allow religious schools to discriminate and still remain eligible for federal funding for meal programs for their students.
USDA gives taxpayer funds to schools to pay for lunches, so long as the schools promise to abide by the anti-discrimination provisions found in Title IX of the Civil Rights Act. Religious schools asserting that this conflicted with their governing religious tenets could seek an exemption from the provisions from the agency. In May of this year, USDA announced that it would interpret Title IX’s provision prohibiting sex discrimination to include sexual orientation and gender identity. Kowtowing to pressure from ultraconservative religious schools, who objected to these interpretations, however, USDA will now allow religious schools to automatically claim exemptions without any sort of application or notice.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation decries this decision, which will force taxpayers to automatically fund discrimination against students based on sex, including sexual orientation and gender identity, which even the hyperconservative U.S. Supreme Court has recognized are forms of sex-based discrimination.
Under the new guidance from USDA, religious schools seeking exemptions no longer need to submit written requests to obtain the exemption. Instead, the exemptions are automatic. This shift in policy comes after a lawsuit was filed by the Alliance Defending Freedom on behalf of Grant Park Christian Academy in Florida, which objected to the written request requirement.
“This is just another example of churches and religious organizations wanting their cake and eating it, too,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “They want to receive all the taxpayer-funded benefits possible, without having to follow any of the rules. They want to turn constitutional separation into a pure benefit for churches — and a pure burden for everyone else.”
This is a reminder of why the Founders believed in a policy of strict separation, which was the original intent of the First Amendment’s religion clauses. The U.S. government cannot dictate religious beliefs or practices, but religious belief is also never a legitimate excuse to violate a law that applies equally to everyone.
If a religious school insists on discriminating, it can — but not with taxpayer funds. If USDA decides to grant religious exemptions to this rule, students have a right to know which schools intend to discriminate. Instead, its concession allows religious schools to accept government benefits and claim to follow Title IX regulations, knowing they can discriminate at any time without notice.
“This is a ‘get out of jail free’ card for religious schools,” comments FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert. “They can promise prospective students that they’ll be protected from sex-based discrimination, and then wait until a lawsuit has been filed against them before claiming that they’ve been secretly exempt all along. It’s deeply unjust and will cause severe harm to students who are duped into attending such schools.”
FFRF urges government officials to stand up for the constitutional separation between state and church, and to protect taxpayers’ religious liberty rights by guarding public funds from religious misuse. There is a great deal of work to be done to restore the eroding wall of separation, and this new USDA rule moves us in the wrong direction.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 37,000 largely nonreligious members across the country, including members in all 50 states and in the District of Columbia. FFRF works to protect the constitutional separation between state and church and to educate about nontheism.