TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Despite reported plans to the contrary, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will allow religious academies that receive funds from the National School Lunch Program to retain their religious exemptions when it comes to enforcing Title IX requirements imposed by the administration of President Joe Biden.
Previously, a Tampa-based religious school, Grant Park Christian Academy, sued the Biden administration and Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried over the implementation of Title IX requirements as applied to the school lunch program. Guidance from the federal government had required that all schools follow federal guidance on gender and sexual orientation protections.
In Florida, Fried had directed FDACS to follow those guidelines, resulting in a risk of the school lunch funds being withheld from certain schools that objected to the Title IX policies on religious grounds.
As of Aug. 12, the USDA clarified that the religious exemptions to Title IX would be respected. In addition to providing a place for religious educational institutions to submit requests for exemption from certain Title IX provisions, the USDA also said that a request would not, in itself, be necessary.
The clarifying document from the USDA also said that “those that have neither sought nor received prior written assurance” are still able to “invoke” the exemption, should they choose.
Following the change of position by USDA, attorneys representing Grant Park Christian Academy provided a statement, saying the administration’s policy change was the right decision, but lamenting the need to file a federal lawsuit to prompt the adjustment.
“On behalf of the students at Grant Park Christian Academy in Tampa we filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration 16 days ago, and in that time, we are pleased to see the administration grant not only that Christian school’s request, but rightly honor the religious beliefs of every other religious school in the country by allowing them to continue operating according to the core tenets of their faith,” Alliance Defending Freedom Legal Counsel Erica Steinmiller-Perdomo said. “While it shouldn’t have taken a federal lawsuit, at least now, all religious schools like Grant Park Christian Academy who rely on the USDA’s funding to continue serving nutritious meals to kids in need can continue this vital service in their communities.”
Grant Park Christian Academy is a small school, according to its own description. It reported that only 56 students were enrolled at the academy for the fall 2022 school session, but that all of the students it serves “come from families below the federal poverty level and receive scholarships” to fund their attendance.
On Aug. 8, the Alliance for Defending Freedom reported the Biden administration had approved the school lunch money for Grant Park, stating “It shouldn’t have taken a lawsuit to get the government to respect religious freedom. Grant Park Christian Academy treats every child with dignity and respect and never turns away a hungry child.”
The ADF said they hoped the government would “follow through” and approve the request, as expected.
“Without approval for their application, Grant Park Christian Academy would not have been reimbursed for each meal it serves to its students—all who come from families below the federal poverty level and rely on the two nutritious meals, plus a snack, the private school provides daily,” according to ADF.
Now approved, the funding of the National School Lunch Program should arrive in time for the school year’s start, allowing the minority, low-income students to receive the meals without Grant Park Christian Academy footing the bill due to lack of reimbursement.
It is unclear at this time if the lawsuit over the issue will proceed. WFLA.com has reached out the academy’s legal representation for an update.