Several thousand feet above San Diego, hikers heed the warning. Do not disturb the golden eagles nesting in the granite crags of El Cajon Mountain. Federal and state laws shelter the majestic fauna and buckbrush flowers that paint the mountainside blue each spring.

Yet 15 miles away, children are not so well-protected by the state. Kelly Wade learned that lesson the hard way. She directs Dayspring Christian Learning Center in a working-class neighborhood of El Cajon, a city of 105,000 people in the nation’s fifth-most populous county.

In December, the California Department of Social Services pulled the plug on funding meals for the 88 kids in Wade’s care. The department said Dayspring’s Biblical beliefs ran afoul of state standards for sexual orientation and gender identity.

Dayspring stands to lose more than $40,000 a year in funds spent directly on providing children two daily meals and a snack. The funding makes up the lion’s share of the preschool’s $65,000 annual food budget.

“If the government can tell a church or church school to change its views on human sexuality, they can tell a religious organization to do anything,” said Dean Broyles, president of the National Center for Law and Policy. The center, joined by Advocates for Faith and Freedom, filed a March lawsuit urging California to restore the school’s funding from a federal food program.

Wade’s husband, Ronald, pastors the Church of Compassion, which operates Dayspring. Broyles represents the church, the school, and the Wades. “Our church has been very supportive,” Wade said. “That’s why my husband and I feel it’s so important to take this stand. Our congregation is praying for us, and so are other community churches.”

Wade and Broyles said students’ parents, including some parents who identify as LGBT, support Dayspring.

The crux of the case centers on an April 2022 revision by California’s Department of Social Services (CDSS). Prior to 2022, the state’s education department administered funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Child and Adult Care Food Program. According to the lawsuit, CDSS assumed responsibility for the program and added language to a civil rights statement to include gender identity and sexual orientation. The added language mirrored an executive order signed by President Joe Biden on his first day in office.

Biden’s order, and the revised California language, followed a 2020 Supreme Court decision that reinterpreted protections against sex discrimination in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include sexual orientation of any kind, including shifting gender identity.

In an October letter, CDSS program leader Jessie Rosales said Dayspring’s application for continued meal funding violated state law. If the school wanted to rejoin the program, Rosales said it would have to “cease requiring individuals to sign or abide by the staff handbook, or any other employment policy, which specifically disallows lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender lifestyles as a condition of employment.”

Dayspring’s 21-page handbook directs employees to model Christ. It includes 16 behaviors, including homosexuality, that the school says do not model Christ.

Church of Compassion appealed the state’s denial, but an administrative law judge sided with California.

After a Tampa, Fla., religious school faced the loss of federal meal funding in August, the Biden administration issued new guidance that religious schools, like Dayspring, are exempt from sex discrimination law interpretations that conflict with their religious tenets.

“On the facts and the law, we should win this case 10 times out of 10,” Broyles said….

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