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USDA: Religious schools exempt from discrimination rules

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced that faith-based schools that take part in a free lunch program can seek exemptions from federal rules barring discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation.

The USDA delivered the clarification in an Aug. 12 memo following a controversy regarding the National School Lunch Program. The federal initiative program seeks to provide meals for millions of kids in nonprofit and public schools nationwide.

Religion News Service reports:

“This summer, at least one school expressed concern that participating in the food program would make the institution beholden to nondiscrimination provisions that are part of Title IX, a measure passed in 1972 aimed at ensuring equal opportunity at educational institutions. While the Trump administration narrowly interpreted Title IX to apply only to the gender assigned at birth, the Biden administration uses a broader interpretation that includes baring discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Grant Park Christian Academy, located in Tampa, Florida, filed a lawsuit in July with the aid of Alliance Defending Freedom, asking to be exempted from the nondiscrimination rules. The academy aimed to avoid being subject to the protections because it focuses on a “biblical worldview about marriage, sexuality, and the human person.”

“According to ADF, the exemption was granted shortly after the lawsuit was filed. But a USDA official suggested that the legal filing was unnecessary in the first place. 

‘USDA regulations do not require a religious educational institution to submit a written request for a Title IX exemption in order to claim that exemption. USDA’s recent guidance is meant to clarify this process,’ said the official in a statement.'”

The Archdiocese of St. Louis also withdrew from the lunch program on Aug. 16, saying that the clarification did not affect the archdiocese’s position.

“‘Accepting any federal subsidy would subject archdiocesan schools to federal mandates that could impede a school’s ability to faithfully carry out the teachings of the Catholic Church,’ an archdiocesan official told CNA last month.

The back-and-forth wades into a broader debate over how federal nondiscrimination policies impact religious institutions. Several religious schools, including Catholic schools, have fired teachers and employees in recent years after they declared their LGBTQ identities or sought to marry a person of the same sex. That includes the Archdiocese of St. Louis, which fired a popular music teacher in 2012 after learning he intended to marry his same-sex partner in another state.”

On Sept. 1, a USDA official told RNS that religious schools could obtain exemptions to Title IX.

“‘Although this prohibition applies to a wide array of public and private schools at the K-12 and the college/university level, the law includes some exceptions, including one permitting an institution to be exempt on religious grounds if there is a conflict between Title IX and a school’s governing religious tenets,’ reads the statement.”

Read the full article here.

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