School lunches in dust-up, lawsuit over new federal LGBTQ anti-bias requirements

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School lunches could be the next battleground for state officials’ quarrel with new federal guidelines that add “gender identity” and “sexual orientation” to the list of classes protected from discrimination

Participating in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s national lunch program comes with a new poster announcing that this institution where the poster hangs complies with civil rights regulations. The new poster says the institution is prohibited from discrimination on “the basis of race, color, national origin, sex (including gender identity and sexual orientation), age, disability and reprisal or retaliation for prior civil rights activity.”

One side says that all that needs to be done is hang the poster. But others, including state officials, argue it amounts to so much more: It’s a sign of the federal government’s “radical gender ideology.”

And agreeing to hang the poster could mean the participating institutions could be sued for not having sex-specific bathrooms or uniforms, or using pronouns that correspond to biological sex.

On Friday, state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried was fresh from being slapped with a lawsuit over these new federal guidelines because of her role overseeing the state’s participation in the federal lunch program. She decried a “new low” for state administration officials and raised the specter that schools could lose their federal lunch money if they buy into this misreading of the new poster and don’t hang it up.

“As an Education Commissioner, Manny Diaz is politicizing school lunch programs and jeopardizing the safety and well-being of Florida students,” she said at a news conference Friday. “And it’s all because of a poster.”

She was talking about Diaz‘s Thursday memo taking issue with the new Title IX guidelines from the feds that added sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of classes protected from discrimination.

The memo, sent to Superintendents, School Boards, private-school owners and charter-school governing boards Thursday, said guidance documents from the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Agriculture “are not binding law.” It also said that putting up the feds’ poster, “And Justice For All,” may create a conflict with Florida law.

Fried said there is no such problem.

“In order to participate in the National School Lunch Program, schools need to comply with a set of federal regulations. One of these regulations requires schools to hang a poster with an anti-discrimination policy in their school food service area,” Fried said. “There’s nothing controversial or complicated about that.”

Twenty-two states, but not Florida, have recently filed suit over this issue, arguing the new directive amounts to requiring schools to provide bathrooms, showers and sports activities to accommodate transgender people. And that may conflict with state laws. Florida in 2021 passed a law, for example, that prohibits transgender girls from participating in public sports teams intended for athletes born as girls.

Diaz raises the same issue in his memo. And a Tampa Christian school’s lawsuit against Fried and others, including federal agencies and President Joe Biden, sees it the same way.

The controversy is reminiscent of earlier conflicts between the feds and state officials that involved masking and the state’s Parental Rights in Education Law. The latter measure more tightly restricts conversations about gender identity and sexual orientation at school.

The Grant Park Christian Academy said that the new guidelines mean that the government is denying children their lunch money because complying with this new policy would conflict with its convictions.

The suit says adhering to the guidelines means the school, “will no longer be able to maintain sex-separated restrooms for boys and girls based on their biological differences. It will no longer be able to maintain sex-specific dress code and uniform policies.”

Fried says it’s no coincidence that the memo and the suit came out in tandem. She was served with the suit Friday morning.

“This is definitely a collaborative action from the Governor’s Office and what is happening in this lawsuit,” she said.

And, furthermore, hanging up the poster has nothing to do with bathrooms or showers, she argued.

“This is about food service lines,” she said, explaining that it’s supposed to ensure that everyone gets food without discrimination.

“Honestly, I’m concerned that the Florida Republicans seem to be intent on inserting sexual overtones in every aspect of schooling in our state. It’s weird and rather creepy,” Fried added.

Ultimately, taking Diaz’s advice — and refusing to hang the poster — could mean schools fall out of compliance with federal regulations and children will go hungry, Fried argued, calling Diaz Gov. Ron DeSantis’ “errand boy”

“It’s clear that Gov. DeSantis isn’t prioritizing the people of our state — he’s trying to create yet another manufactured crisis, another culture war, another political opportunity to divide us because he’s running for President,” said Fried, who is also a gubernatorial candidate, vying for the Democratic nomination to unseat DeSantis.

“Unfortunately, these stumps have real-world consequences and the consequences here are that Florida kids may not be able to get the food they need,” Fried said.

The feds would actually have to disqualify schools from participating in the national school lunch program for not hanging the poster for Fried’s worst-case scenario to happen. Federal officials couldn’t be reached to weigh in on the controversy on Friday, however.

Both the Governor’s Office and the state Department of Education issued statements that said this is about more than hanging a poster next to school lunch lines.

Bryan Griffin said it’s Fried who is holding children hostage to her political agenda.

“The policy changes improperly demanded by the federal government and Commissioner of Agriculture, in some cases, run afoul of Florida law,” said Griffin, the Governor’s spokesman. “The Governor’s office fully supports the Florida Department of Education.”

Alex Lanfranconi, a DOE spokesman, said that Fried’s position amounts to forcing schools to “accept the Biden Administration’s radical gender ideology.”

“We will not allow our children to be used as bargaining chips for individuals who are motivated by self-interest rather than the health and safety of all students,” he wrote.

Lanfranconi forwarded an email from Fried’s office he said proves that this situation is about much more than putting up a poster. In the memo, Fried said there are three steps for federal lunch program participants to stay in compliance with the federal government.

Firstly, the new discrimination statement must be on the participants’ website no later than Sept. 30. Next, the “And Justice for All” posters should be hung in a clearly visible location. And, finally, the new discrimination statement should be on the materials families receive.

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