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USDA: Religious schools have automatic exemption to new Title IX interpretation

School lunch
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Amid objections from religious institutions, the United States Department of Agriculture clarified that it would not require religious schools to broaden their definition of sex-based discrimination to include sexual orientation and gender identity in order to receive federal meal funding. 

In a document released Friday, the USDA said that Title IX, the law prohibiting sex discrimination from schools that receive federal funding, includes some exceptions if there's a conflict between it and the “school’s governing religious tenets.”

On May 5, the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service announced its plans to interpret “the prohibition on discrimination based on sex found in Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972” to include “discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.”

The agency published a memorandum the same day, clarifying that its interpretation of Title IX applied to all recipients of FNS funds. The USDA’s policy change required schools and other qualifying organizations receiving funds from FNS to update their non-discrimination policies and signs accordingly to include gender identity and sexual orientation.

It also required all qualifying groups to investigate allegations of discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. 

The FNS administers the National School Lunch Program that provides low-cost and free lunches to children at nearly 100,000 public and nonprofit private schools and childcare centers. In fiscal year 2019, the program provided 4.9 billion lunches at a cost of $14.2 billion.

Upon announcing the exemptions to the new policy, the USDA stated that religious educational institutions wouldn't need to submit a written request for Title IX exemption in order to claim one. 

“If, however, a religious educational institution wishes to seek USDA recognition of their religious exemption, it may do so through a written request under USDA regulations,” the document reads. “The written request seeks USDA assurance of exemption from applicable sections of USDA’s Title IX regulations.” 

“Those that have neither sought nor received prior written assurance from USDA may still invoke their exemption after USDA receives a Title IX discrimination complaint or initiates Title IX compliance efforts,” the USDA continued. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture did not immediately respond to The Christian Post’s request for comment.

Last month, Tennessee’s Republican Attorney General Herbert Slatery and 21 other Republican attorneys general filed a lawsuit against the USDA and its top officials in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee Knoxville Division. The attorneys general of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia signed onto the lawsuit. 

They cited concerns that USDA’s interpretation of Title IX would cause the plaintiff states to lose federal funding for the National School Lunch Program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) Program. The lawsuit listed states with “laws or policies that at least arguably conflict with” the USDA’s final rule, such as Tennessee. 

As highlighted in the complaint, one of the state’s laws declares that “[a] student’s gender for purposes of participation in a public middle school or high school interscholastic athletic activity or event must be determined by the student’s sex at the time of the student’s birth.”

In addition, the law provides a right of action against schools that permit “a member of the opposite sex to enter [a] multi-occupancy restroom or changing facility while other persons [are] present.”

The lawsuit maintained that the final rule issued by the USDA requires states to ensure that “no person, on the grounds of sex, including gender identity and sexual orientation, race, color, age, political belief, religious creed, disability or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be otherwise subject to discrimination under SNAP.” 

The complaint urged a federal judge to issue “a declaratory judgment holding unlawful the Department’s Memoranda and Final Rule” and a “declaratory judgment holding that Plaintiffs are not bound by the Department’s Memoranda and Final Rule.” 

It also sought a declaration that the department did not have the authority to penalize and withhold federal funds from Title IX and Food and Nutrition Act recipients that “continue to separate students by biological sex in appropriate circumstances.” 

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