TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — A Tampa religious school has filed a lawsuit against President Joe Biden and Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, and several other federal officials, accusing them of “threatening…their ability to feed hungry children.” The school, Grant Park Christian Academy, said most of their students are low-income, minority children in Tampa.
At the center of the legal complaint is a recent change to federal policy. In January 2021, Biden directed the federal agencies to broaden how they applied civil rights protections to LGBTQ+ issues, in response to a 2020 U.S. Supreme Court decision.
The case, Bostock v. Clayton County, Ga. has already led to Florida being home to the first federal charges over violating someone’s rights based on gender identity. The Bostock guidance issued by the White House last year expanded protections created by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include prohibitions on discrimination for sexual orientation and gender identity.
Previously, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it would be reducing the level of its National School Lunch Program, returning to how it operated before the COVID-19 pandemic. The change means that while every school fed every student for free during the pandemic for breakfast and lunch, now schools would return to a combination of free or reduced lunches. Parents still have time to apply for the free lunches for their students.
However, Grant Park is suing Biden and Fried, who administers the National School Lunch Program on behalf of the USDA in Florida, for using the Bostock ruling to “violate the schools’ religious beliefs” or make them “lose their ability to serve low-income children free meals.” The academy issued a statement a day after filing a federal lawsuit against multiple parties in the federal government and the Florida Ag. Commissioner on Wednesday. The school is represented in court by Alliance Defending Freedom, a non-profit organization focused on “protecting religious freedom, free speech, parental rights, and the sanctity of life.”
Discussing the lawsuit in their announcement, representatives of the academy’s position said the Biden administration was ignoring the law.
“The Biden administration is threatening to take away lunch money from low-income children simply because they attend Christian schools,” ADF Legal Counsel Erica Steinmiller-Perdomo said on behalf of Grant Park Christian Academy. “Grant Park Christian Academy is working to revitalize their historically underprivileged community, and offering children nutritious meals is a vital part of their service. The Biden administration is ignoring the law and forcing this wonderful school to make an untenable choice: violate its religious beliefs or stop providing lunches to children.”
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, Tampa Division.
The academy itself is small, according to their own release. Only 56 students are currently enrolled at Grant Park Christian Academy for the fall 2022 school semester. The academy said all of its students “come from families below the federal poverty level and receive scholarships to attend the private school.”
The academy alleges that by expanding the meaning of “sex” through new interpretations of Title IX of the Civil Rights Act, the Biden administration was threatening to take children’s free lunches just because they attend a Christian school.
In their court filing, Grant Park said when t hey contacted Fried and the Florida Department of Agriculture, they were told that the “school was not required to participate in the National School Lunch Program.” At issue was how FDACS would administer the program. As the managing party for the NSLP in Florida, FDACS could choose to apply the new regulations but provide a religious exemption.
The lawsuit says FDACS is not doing so, and that the “broad new school lunch mandate is not based on an accurate understanding of the law and that Title IX provides a religious exemption, regardless.” By not providing alternatives, Grant Park Christian Academy is accusing the Biden administration and Fried of using their redefinition of sex in the context of federal law to “deny school lunches to underprivileged students” simply because the school will not violate its religious beliefs.
In communications between the academy and Commissioner Fried’s office, FDACS told the school that any institution participating in the federal program “must comply with all federal program regulations,” according to the academy’s court filing. The school said the rule, if followed without religious exemption, would lead to changes of policy for everything from school uniforms and dress code policies to having separate restrooms by gender “based on their biological differences.” Grant Park’s court filing said by complying, it would “suffer harms to its educational mission.”
When announcing the executive order that changed how federal agencies interpreted Title IX, the Biden administration had said it was to ensure that any American, regardless of age, sex, race, sexual orientation, or gender identity would always be able to access healthcare, housing, and employment, among other needs and services, without facing discrimination.
Grant Park Christian Academy, however, is suing over their belief that by applying the new Title IX interpretations in this way, children could go hungry over the school practicing its faith, making it a First Amendment issue as well.
“School children should not have to pay the price for federal and state officials’ misplaced and unlawful agenda,” the lawsuit said.
In response to a request for comment, an FDACS spokesperson released the following statement.
“Our office has yet to be served in what appears to be a politically-motivated attempt to distract from the fact that the DeSantis Administration and his Department of Children and Families are failing to carry out the federal nutrition programs under their authority — including SNAP E&T non-compliance and, most egregiously, once again not applying for available federal funding for the Summer P-EBT supplemental child nutrition program — by insinuating that FDACS’ administration of USDA school meal programs according to federal law somehow makes our state agency responsible for federal regulations. It’s also curious that one day after 22 Republican Attorneys General launched a clear political attack against the Biden Administration over this same federal regulation, which Florida’s Attorney General did not join in, that an entity would name Commissioner Fried and state agency staff in a similar suit that clearly is a federal matter.”Statement from Erin Moffet, FDACS spokesperson
WFLA.com has reached out to the White House for comment on the litigation.