A private religious school in Tampa will not have to follow new federal laws regarding sexual orientation and gender identity in order to continue receiving federal school lunch dollars, the school’s lawyers said Monday.
Alliance Defending Freedom, the conservative legal firm representing Grant Park Christian Academy in a federal lawsuit, announced that state officials had informed the school it could continue participating in the lunch program based on a religious exemption in federal law.
The lawsuit was filed in Tampa federal court on July 27 against President Joe Biden and Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, claiming the defendants were effectively taking food from the low-income children who attend the school. The school has 56 students from pre-K through eighth grade, all of whom come from families below the federal poverty level.
The filing came the same day 22 Republican state attorneys general filed a lawsuit against the requirements that schools receiving federal funds comply with changes to policies under Title IX, the 50-year-old law intended to prevent discrimination by education programs on the basis of sex.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the National School Lunch Program, had previously stated schools would need to comply with the changes to continue receiving money.
The lawsuit blamed the Biden administration, which expanded the definition of “sex” in Title IX to include sexual orientation and gender identity. It asserts that the changes would force Grant Park Christian Academy to choose between following its religious beliefs or feeding its students.
A day after the lawsuit, Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz issued a memo to school district leaders stating that they could ignore the new federal rules on gender identity and sexual orientation, and Gov. Ron DeSantis chastised Biden for trying to “take away lunch money from poor kids.”
While Title IX offers a religious exemption, the school contended that Fried’s office previously told them they had to follow the new rules if they participated in the lunch program.
However, according to a new filing in the lawsuit, the school received confirmation on Friday from federal officials stating it qualified for a religious exemption. The school also was told by Fried’s general counsel that the exemption would be respected and that Grant Park Christian will receive its federal lunch money when the new school year starts.
At a virtual news conference Monday, Fried said the school’s application had never been denied and lunch funds were never threatened. She called the lawsuit a “disgusting political stunt” designed to create a “fake culture war to divide Floridians.” She accused Diaz and DeSantis of partnering with Alliance Defending Freedom to target her, a Democratic candidate for governor.
“It was never about a true concern about students and their access to meals,” she said.
The group representing the school, however, saw the statement as a win.
“It shouldn’t have taken a lawsuit to get the government to respect religious freedom,” said Erica Steinmiller-Perdomo, a lawyer for Alliance Defending Freedom. “Grant Park Christian Academy treats every child with dignity and respect and never turns away a hungry child.”
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Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.