WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Agriculture has decided to settle a pregnancy resource center’s lawsuit after the USDA’s National Appeals Division determined in June that the agency wrongly denied a building loan to the center. Although the center fully qualified for the loan, the USDA denied the loan solely on the basis that the center allows people to voluntarily participate in Bible studies held at its facilities.
Even though Care Net of Windham County, Vt., met all the qualifications for the special building loan program, the USDA denied the loan based upon unspecified and undisclosed “faith-based eligibility criteria” after it learned that the center would provide voluntary Bible studies in one of its proposed classrooms when the room is not being used for other purposes. The USDA’s own regulations say that such uses are permitted.
“Government loans should not come with an unwritten ‘surrender your faith’ clause,” said Michael Tierney, one of nearly 2,300 allied attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom. “The USDA’s denial was as strange as requiring homeowners to surrender their faith if they wish to apply for FHA or VA loans. The USDA is doing the right thing by abandoning its fight against Care Net’s very clear constitutional freedoms.”
The USDA operates programs to provide loans to individuals and non-profit organizations in rural areas. Care Net Pregnancy Center of Windham County applied for a loan through the USDA’s Rural Development Community Facilities program to renovate a new facility that provides pregnancy classes and emergency shelter for expectant women and new mothers.
The Appeals Division concluded in its determination that Care Net “is not seeking government funds to subsidize religious education or instruction; rather, it seeks a government loan for capital improvements to a building.” The appeals division looked at the case after the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the original USDA hearing officer failed to consider Care Net’s constitutional arguments.
“The USDA has agreed to refrain from using religion to disqualify Care Net from the loan program. That’s not only a victory for Care Net; it’s a victory for others who may seek loans for critical services to the community and don’t want their religious speech held against them,” said Senior Counsel Steven H. Aden, co-counsel in the case, Care Net Pregnancy Center of Windham County v. United States Department of Agriculture. “The USDA’s own regulations say that religious education uses are allowed in buildings purchased or renovated using USDA loans or grants.”
USDA regulations state, “A religious organization is eligible, on the same basis as any other eligible private organization, to access and participate in USDA assistance programs. Neither the federal government, nor a state or local government receiving USDA assistance shall, in the selection of service providers, discriminate for or against a religious organization on the basis of the organization’s religious character or affiliation.”
- Pronunciation guide: Tierney (TEER’-nee)
Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.
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