Decision: religious speech can’t derail USDA loan

Vt. pregnancy center wins appeal
Monday, June 17, 2013

Attorney sound bite:  Michael Tierney  |  Steven Aden

WASHINGTON — The National Appeals Division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture determined Friday that the USDA wrongly denied a building loan to a pregnancy resource center for which it fully qualified. 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 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. “This was as ridiculous as requiring homeowners to surrender their faith if they wish to apply for FHA or VA loans. Care Net looks forward to partnering with public agencies to provide critical services for the women of Windham County.”

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 USDA should have known that disqualifying a faith-based provider from funds needed to help women in need was both unconstitutional and wrongheaded,” 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. The Appeals Division was right to conclude that the USDA did not have a legitimate basis to deny Care Net’s loan application.”

The USDA denied Care Net eligibility solely on the basis that it would engage in “religious speech in the building” and would find Care Net eligible if it “keeps religious speech out of the building.” Friday’s decision held that the Establishment Clause does not require exclusion of people of faith as the USDA alleged. The determination instead found that such religious exclusion violates Care Net’s constitutionally protected right to free speech, equal protection, and free exercise of religion.

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.

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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