Free Lunch Program Funds in Jeopardy at Catholic Schools Due to Biden Admin LGBT Rule Change
Fifty-two percent of U.S. Catholic schools participate in the federal lunch program.
Catholic school leaders need to be aware that their schools could be cut off from the federal government's free and subsidized lunch program if their policies don't comply with the Biden administration's revised rules against LGBTQ discrimination, experts warn.
Earlier this year the administration re-interpreted Title IX's federal ban on sex discrimination to include “sexual orientation or gender identity.” Religious freedom and free speech advocates warn that the proposed rule change could be used to enforce mandates on hiring, bathrooms, using preferred pronouns, and dress codes.
The broadened definition now also applies to the National School Lunch Program, a federally funded meal assistance program administered by the Department of Agriculture that provides subsidized or free lunches to more than 30 million public and private school students from low-income households.
That change promises to put pressure on religious schools not aligned with the Biden administration’s LGBTQ agenda, especially those serving low-income populations that rely heavily on the federal funds.
Fifty-two percent of U.S. Catholic schools participate in the federal lunch program, said Sister Dale McDonald, vice president of public policy at the National Catholic Educational Association, which represents nearly 150,000 educators serving 1.6 million students in Catholic schools, universities, and religious education programs.
One private school, Grant Park Christian Academy in Tampa, Florida, managed to secure a religious exemption last week from the state's agriculture department — but the school had to file a lawsuit first to get it.
And Grant Park Christian’s religious exemption “was the only one approved by the federal and state government,” said Erica Steinmiller-Perdomo, legal counsel with the nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented the school in court.
“Other religious schools are not protected and will need to seek their own religious exemption in writing," she told CNA.
"There is no telling how long it will take for the government to respond to them without a pending lawsuit," she added, "and they have no idea if they need to comply with the unlawful mandates in the meantime.”
Until then, the lawyer stressed, “All schools will continue to be injured by the Biden administration’s overreach in redefining Title IX without going through the proper processes."
Catholic Schools 'Need to be Ready'
The Tampa private school filed a lawsuit in July against Biden and Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried after Fried threatened to cut off the school's lunch money.
On Friday — just over a week after the lawsuit was filed — Fried informed the academy that the school’s application for a religious exemption would be approved, restoring the funds.
Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, a nonprofit organization that promotes and defends Catholic education, said that although the lawsuit was a win for one school, religious schools that participate in the lunch program should be warned.
“The fact remains that a religious school was forced to sue the government to protect its constitutional rights, and every Catholic school needs to be ready to do the same,” Reilly told CNA.
“This was blatant bullying by the Biden administration to advance its radical agenda," he added.
"Moreover, they exploited the fact that many schools, including Catholic schools, felt compelled during the COVID pandemic to greatly expand their participation in the federal school lunch program," Reilly said. "You try to help needy families using federal money, and your religious freedom is endangered."
Several archdioceses contacted by CNA Wednesday did not respond for comment prior to publication time.
In a statement to CNA, the Archdiocese of New York said that it was "studying the applicability of the USDA’s Title IX regulations, and their potential impact on our Catholic schools.”