The Newsom Administration’s California Department of Social Services (CDSS) tried but failed to force an El Cajon Christian preschool to abandon its religious beliefs on sexuality and gender or be kicked out of participating in a federally funded USDA food program. After the church filed a federal civil rights lawsuit, Attorney General Rob Bonta’s Justice Department refused to defend the state’s actions and settled for nearly $200,000.
“This is a major victory for religious liberty,” said Greg Burt, Vice President of the California Family Council. “The state should not discriminate against churches and other religious non-profits because they won’t abandon their biblical beliefs. Newsom’s officials tried to illegally stop this church from showing the love of Jesus to poor immigrant families. Fortunately, the Constitution protects people of faith against government overreach like this.”
Attorneys for the Church of Compassion and its Dayspring Christian Learning Center were represented by the National Center for Law and Policy (NCLP), Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) and Advocates for Faith and Freedom (AFF). They filed a lawsuit and motion for preliminary injunction against the Biden administration and California state officials last year, challenging the suspension of the Church’s preschool from a federal food program due to their beliefs about human sexuality.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees the Child and Adult Food Care Program nationally, provides funding to states including California. After the Biden administration expanded the definition of “sex” in Title IX to encompass sexual orientation and gender identity, California’s Department of Social Services (CDSS) implemented new mandates. But these new rules restricted religious organizations from participation in the food program if their orthodox biblical views on human sexuality affected they way they operated their church or ministry.
The preschool was abruptly removed from the Food Program on December 29, 2022, when the CDSS mistakenly thought it could enforce compliance with the sexual orientation and gender identity “non-discrimination” provisions against religious institutions. The CDSS insisted that both the Church and the preschool revise all their policies and practices to conform with this new directive, not merely their food services. In an attempt to discipline the preschool, the CDSS added the school to the National Disqualified List, effectively blocking their access to government funding. Nonetheless, the church remained resolute and did not yield to the state’s demands.
The sweeping CDSS mandates would have required the church and preschool overhaul their hiring policies, restroom regulations, dress codes, and pronoun use to align with the government’s updated definitions. Despite warnings from the National Center for Law & Policy (NCLP) that such actions were a clear violation of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, the CDSS moved forward with the withdrawal of Food Program funds from the preschool.
“Ironically, in the name of combatting discrimination, government officials have excluded the church and preschool from serving the El Cajon community based solely on their religious beliefs and exercise,” said ADF Senior Counsel Jeremiah Galus. “This is antithetical to the First Amendment’s promise of religious freedom and only hurts needy families and children.”
The federal civil rights lawsuit and motion for preliminary injunction asserted violations of religious freedom, speech, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the federal Administrative Procedures Act. Federal law protects religious organizations from discrimination based on their beliefs and hiring practices. Attorney General Rob Bonta’s staff wisely quickly waved the white flag of surrender deciding to settle the case before the court even had an opportunity to rule on the motion for preliminary injunction.
The settlement reinstated Dayspring in the Food Program, reimbursed suspended funds, removed the preschool from the National Disqualified List, and required the CDSS to issue clear guidance regarding the existence of exemptions for religious institutions in California’s food programs. The CDSS also agreed to pay $160,000 in legal fees. This outcome is a significant win for religious freedom in California and sets a precedent for similar religious institutions.
“California must never be permitted to prioritize its extreme sexual ideological aims over the needs of hungry children,” said Constitutional attorney Dean Broyles, chief counsel of the NCLP. ”It is profoundly unethical and immoral that California officials so flagrantly ignored their oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution and deliberately decided to hold hungry children hostage to their draconian desire to coercively control the religious beliefs, observances and practices of a Christian church and its religious preschool.”
“We had a fantastic legal team, but God gets all the glory for this victory,” Broyles continued. “We are glad that we decided to bring in our friends at ADF as co-counsel because of their recent similar win against the USDA in Florida. Jeremiah Galus and the ADF team did a fantastic job.”
“It is imperative that the government never be allowed to coerce citizens into embracing its preferred ideologies or to mandate adherence to state-sanctioned perspectives on human sexuality. Any government efforts to commandeer places of worship and religious institutions should be met with firm opposition, as they did in this case,” Burt said.