Christian Education

USDA exempts religious schools from non-discrimination rules for feeding children

WASHINGTON (RNS) — The U.S. Department of Agriculture has clarified its guidelines for participants in a free school lunch program, saying faith-based schools can apply for religious exemptions to federal restrictions that include the ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

The clarification, provided via a USDA memo dated Aug. 12, follows a controversy involving the National School Lunch Program, a federal initiative that provides meals to tens of millions of children in public schools and private non-profit organizations in the country.

This summer, at least one school expressed concern that participation in the food program could make the school liable for the non-discrimination provisions that are part of Title IX, a measure passed in 1972 to ensure equal opportunity in educational institutions. While the Trump administration has narrowly interpreted Title IX as applying only to sex assigned at birth, the Biden administration, much like the Obama administration, uses a broader interpretation of the provision that includes the prohibition of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

In July, Grant Park Christian Academy in Tampa, Florida, filed a lawsuit with the help of conservative legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, seeking an exemption from non-discrimination provisions. In the lawsuit, the academy claimed it should not be subject to the protections because the school teaches a “biblical worldview about marriage, sexuality and the human person.”

According to ADF, the exemption was granted shortly after the complaint was filed. But a USDA official suggested to Religion News Service that legal deposit was not necessary in the first place. “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. Recent USDA guidance aims to clarify this process,” the official said in a statement.

On August 16, the Archdiocese of St. Louis also reportedly withdrew from the luncheon program, according to the Catholic News Agency. The archdiocese said the USDA clarification did not change the archdiocese’s position.

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

A school lunch tray showing a reimbursable meal for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Photo by USDA/Creative Commons

The back-and-forth engages in a larger debate about the impact of federal non-discrimination policies on religious institutions. Several religious schools, including Catholic schools, have fired teachers and staff in recent years after declaring their LGBTQ identity or seeking to marry someone of the same sex. That includes the Archdiocese of St. Louis, which fired a popular music teacher in 2012 after learning he planned to marry his same-sex partner in another state.

Some religious school administrators have resisted pressure from bishops and other religious authorities to remove LGBTQ teachers, and some fired employees have sued for wrongful termination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act – a similar but distinct provision prohibiting any employer from discriminating on grounds of sex.

In 2020, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Bostock v. Clayton County that the Title VII prohibition against sex discrimination also protects gay or transgender employees in secular settings. In his majority opinion, Judge Neil Gorsuch noted that while there are multiple mechanisms for seeking religious exemptions from federal laws, precisely how they apply to Title VII was a matter “for future cases.”

Although the ruling focused on a different law, US officials suggested it had implications for Title IX. In June, US Department of Education officials cited Gorsuch’s opinion of Bostock while outlining proposed amendments to Title IX regulations that specified efforts to “protect LGBTQI+ students from discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics”.

“As the Supreme Court wrote in Bostock v. Clayton County … it is ‘impossible to discriminate against a person’ on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity without ‘discriminating against that person on the basis of sex'” , the officials wrote.

Meanwhile, a USDA official reiterated to the RNS Thursday, Sept. 1, that schools can apply for Title IX religious exemptions.

“While this prohibition applies to a wide range of public and private K-12 and college/university schools, the law includes certain exceptions, including one allowing an institution to be exempted for religious grounds where there is a conflict between Title IX and the religious principles governing a school,” the official’s statement read.