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POLICY DIGEST: USDA exempts religious schools from Title IX rules; HIV-drug coverage not required, judge says

USDA exempts religious schools from Title IX rules

WASHINGTON (RNS) – The U.S. Department of Agriculture has clarified its guidance for participants in a free school lunch program, stating that faith-based schools can seek religious exemptions to federal restrictions that include barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

The clarification, delivered via a USDA memo dated Aug. 12, comes in the wake of controversy involving the National School Lunch Program, a federal initiative that provides meals for tens of millions of children at public and nonprofit private schools nationwide. 

This summer, at least one school expressed concern that participating in the food program would make the institution beholden to nondiscrimination provisions that are part of Title IX, a measure passed in 1972 aimed at ensuring equal opportunity at educational institutions. The Biden administration, like the Obama administration, interprets the word “sex” in the provision to include sexual orientation or gender identity.

In July, Grant Park Christian Academy in Tampa, Fla., filed a lawsuit with the aid of the Alliance Defending Freedom, seeking an exemption from the nondiscrimination provisions. In the lawsuit, the academy claimed it should not be subject to the protections because the school teaches a “biblical worldview about marriage, sexuality, and the human person.”

According to ADF, the exemption was granted shortly after the lawsuit was filed. But a USDA official suggested to Religion News Service that the legal filing was unnecessary in the first place. “USDA regulations do not require a religious educational institution to submit a written request for a Title IX exemption in order to claim that exemption. USDA’s recent guidance is meant to clarify this process,” said the official in a statement.

Judge rules required coverage of HIV prevention drug violates employer’s religious freedom

FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) – A federal judge ruled Wednesday that required coverage of an HIV prevention drug under the Affordable Care Act violates a Texas employer’s religious beliefs and undercut the broader system that determines which preventive drugs are covered in the U.S.

The ruling was handed down by Fort Worth-based U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor, who ruled in 2018 that the entire ACA is invalid. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately overturned that decision.

O’Connor’s latest ruling targets a mandate under the law that requires employers to cover the HIV prevention treatment known as PrEP, which is a pill taken daily to prevent infection.

The challenge was brought by a company owned by Steven Hotze, a conservative activist in Texas who is described in the lawsuit as operating Braidwood Management “according to Christian principles and teaching.” It was filed by an architect of the Texas abortion law that was the nation’s strictest before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June.

“Defendants do not show a compelling interest in forcing private, religious corporations to cover PrEP drugs with no cost-sharing and no religious exemptions,” O’Connor wrote in his ruling.

He also ruled that a federal task force that recommends coverage of preventive treatments, which is made up of volunteer members, violates the appointment clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The Biden administration is likely to appeal. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

From Religion News Service. May not be republished.

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