Church Settles Lawsuit Over Preschool Lunch Program Exclusion

On Tuesday, California state officials agreed to a nearly $200,000 settlement with the Church of Compassion and Dayspring Christian Learning Center. This settlement concludes a lawsuit initiated in June 2023 by the church and the center, who are represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). The lawsuit alleged that the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the California Department of Social Services unjustly barred them from the “Child and Adult Food Care Program” due to their religious convictions on gender identity.

The essence of the conflict stemmed from the USDA’s altered guidelines in 2021, demanding all program participants to pledge non-discrimination based on gender identity and orientation. The Church of Compassion and Dayspring Christian Learning Center, aligning with their religious beliefs, declined to conform to these new mandates, leading to their exclusion from the 2022-2023 school year program.

Jeremiah Galus, senior counsel for ADF, criticized the government’s actions, stating, “The government can’t withhold food from families in need simply because their children attend a Christian preschool.” He emphasized that the First Amendment shields the church and its preschool’s right to operate according to their faith.

This lawsuit is not an isolated incident but reflects a broader context of national legal and ideological battles. It surfaces amid ongoing debates over how religious institutions can adhere to their beliefs while participating in public programs. Critics of the government’s stance argue that such exclusion based on religious beliefs violates constitutional rights, particularly the First Amendment.

The settlement mandates the defendants to reimburse the church over $30,000 for meals self-funded during the program’s absence and $160,000 to cover attorney’s fees. This agreement acknowledges the right of the Church of Compassion and Dayspring Christian Learning Center to partake in federal food programs while adhering to their religious convictions.

While the lawsuit’s resolution favors the church and the center, it poses significant questions about balancing religious freedom and anti-discrimination policies in public programs.

The settlement bears substantial implications in El Cajon, where the church and preschool are situated. With a considerable immigrant population, the area relies heavily on the services provided by the Church of Compassion and Dayspring Christian Learning Center. Many of the families served qualify for free meals under the program, highlighting the critical nature of such services in communities like El Cajon.