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Biden rules threaten to starve Tampa school

School meals at stake for Christian academy serving low-income students


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Biden rules threaten to starve Tampa school

At first, the June 23 email in Pastor Alfred Johnson’s inbox seemed routine. Then he read with increasing dread what Florida officials demanded his Tampa school do: Embrace gender dictates of an “And Justice for All” policy, or Grant Park Christian Academy would be bounced from the National School Lunch Program.

Embracing the policy would ensure that 56 students from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade would keep eating, but with a trap door: Grant Park must guarantee a student’s choice of gender, pronouns, restrooms, and clothing. Further, “And Justice for All” required the school to admit, hire, and teach against its religious beliefs about marriage and sexuality.

By late July, Johnson and his board deemed those costs too high. With Tampa attorneys and the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom, the school sued Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, President Joe Biden, and others in the school-lunch food chain.

“They’ve put us in quite a painful situation,” Johnson said Friday. “There’s no telling how we’re going to deal with this situation if we don’t get a ruling from the judge.”

In Tampa, a federal court will weigh the case, because the policy tracks back to an executive order by Biden on his Inauguration Day. Eighteen months later, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is extending that order to schools in the National School Lunch Program.

An irony, say Johnson and his attorney, is Grant Park Christian Academy embodies loving its students without discrimination. Yet the federal policy, they say, discriminates against the school’s religious exemption enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and federal statutes, such as the Title VII Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.

“What the Biden Administration is trying to do, unlawfully, is expand the reach of Title IX,” said Erica Steinmiller-Perdomo, an ADF attorney. Title IX, a 1972 federal education law, bars discrimination based upon sex, but it does not extend to fluid definitions of gender orientation, she said.

Those legal waters became muddier in 2020, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Bostock v. Clayton County that employers may not make hiring and firing decisions based solely on sexual orientation or transgender status. The high court cited Title VII but didn’t apply its guidance to Title IX or other federal laws.

Still, lower federal courts and the Biden administration began applying the Bostock ruling to Title IX cases. Then in July, U.S. District Judge Charles Atchley, a Trump nominee, ruled in favor of 20 states and put that path on hold. The Tennessee judge said Bostock did not “prejudge” such issues as segregated bathrooms, locker rooms, and dress codes.

In Tampa, Johnson and Steinmiller-Perdomo seek an injunction, like the Tennessee case, putting the USDA policy on hold until merits of the case are decided. Because all 56 students qualify for free meals, the Tampa school received $87,000 during 2021-22. That’s a drop in the federal program’s $25 billion annual bucket. Losing meals, though, could end religious education in a neighborhood where poverty is three times the U.S. rate.

Neither Fried nor USDA answered requests for comment. Fried—a Democrat challenging GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis in November—did blast her opponent and his education secretary for molding Grant Park into “a fictitious culture war.” At a Friday press event, Fried said she’ll continue to “fight like hell” for children to get meals.

With school starting Aug. 10, Johnson agreed neither Grant Park’s students nor its traditional American values are political toys to be trifled with: “Leave us alone. Give us the revenue to provide nutrition to these kids, and let us do what we need to do to strengthen this community.”

Editor's Note:
In an about-face, the Biden administration reversed course on Aug. 8, dropping the USDA mandate that a Tampa school guarantee a student’s choice of gender, pronouns, restrooms, and clothing—or else get booted from the National School Lunch Program.


Gary Perilloux

Gary is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute midcareer course.

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