INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita and more than 20 other Republican attorneys general filed a lawsuit Tuesday against President Joe Biden's administration over a Department of Agriculture school meal program that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Rokita said he's co-leading the 22-state lawsuit with Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery. The lawsuit claims that the federal government is attempting to force states and schools to follow antidiscrimination requirements that "misconstrue the law."
"They've [the Biden administration] reached a new level of shamelessness with this ploy of holding up food assistance for low-income kids unless schools do the Left’s bidding," Rokita said.
The coalition of attorneys general are hoping for a similar result to a separate challenge from earlier this month when a Tennessee judge temporarily barred two federal agencies from enforcing directives issued by Biden's administration that extended protections for LGBTQ people in schools and workplaces.
The judge sided with the attorneys general, ruling that the directives infringed on states' right to enact laws, such as banning students from participating in sports based on their gender identity or requiring schools and businesses to provide bathrooms and showers to accommodate transgender people.
“We are fighting for Hoosier common sense and the rule of law wherever they come under challenge,” Rokita said. “And we will continue doing the work that the people of Indiana elected us to do.”
In May, the USDA announced that it would include discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity as a violation of Title IX, the sweeping 1972 law that guarantees equity between the sexes in "any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance." The directive requires states to review allegations of discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation, as well as update their policies and signage.
"This case is, yet again, about a federal agency trying to change law, which is Congress' exclusive prerogative," Slatery said in a statement. "The USDA simply does not have that authority. We have successfully challenged the Biden Administration's other attempts to rewrite law and we will challenge this as well."
The agency warned that states and schools that receive federal funds, which include the national school lunch program overseen by the USDA, have agreed to follow civil rights laws. Although the agency says it wants voluntary compliance, it also has promised to refer violations to the Department of Justice. It is not clear whether the federal government would hold back funding for school meal programs as part of its enforcement.
The directive followed a landmark civil rights decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2020 that, under a provision called Title VII, protects gay, lesbian and transgender people from discrimination in the workplace.
According to the lawsuit, the attorneys general allege that the USDA's new directive is based on a "misreading" of the Supreme Court's ruling and did not provide states and other groups the opportunity to provide public comment.
"The Biden administration’s actions will inevitably result in regulatory chaos that threatens essential nutritional services to some of Indiana’s most vulnerable citizens," Rokita claimed in a statement.
The attorneys general involved in the lawsuit filed Tuesday are from Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia.
According to Rokita, the National School Lunch Program services nearly 30 million schoolchildren each day, many who rely on it for breakfast, lunch, or both. Approximately 100,000 public and non-profit private schools and residential childcare institutions receive federal funding to provide subsidized free or reduced-price meals for qualifying children.
A spokesperson for the USDA did not immediately return a request for comment.