The Biden administration just hit a major hurdle in its effort to fight back against the latest legal challenge to one of the provisions of the president’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.
The package, branded as a COVID-19 relief bill and signed by Biden after passing along party lines in March, established a program to provide loan relief and forgiveness to “socially disadvantaged” farmers across the U.S. But according to NBC News, a federal judge sided with a group of white plaintiffs who say the practice discriminates against them in a ruling Thursday temporarily halting the program.
Justifying his injunction, Judge William Griesbach reportedly said the plaintiffs were “likely to succeed” in their effort to prove that the “use of race-based criteria in the administration of the program” by Biden’s Department of Agriculture (USDA) “violates their right to equal protection under the law.”
“Congress can implement race-neutral programs to help farmers and ranchers in need of financial assistance, such as requiring individual determinations of disadvantaged status or giving priority to loans of farmers and ranchers that were left out of the previous pandemic relief funding,” the judge explained, according to The Daily Wire. “But it cannot discriminate on the basis of race.”
“I just want to be treated equally”
The suit was first launched back in April by Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, a Republican who accused the USDA of violating the Constitution and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by allegedly excluding farmers and ranchers “from the loan forgiveness program based on race,” The Daily Wire reported.
According to NBC, the USDA qualifies “socially disadvantaged” farmers as those “who are one or more of the following: Black/African American, American Indian, Alaskan native, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, or Pacific Islander.”
At this point, the lawsuit reportedly involves 12 farmers from nine different states who say they’ve been shut out from the program.
A similar provision of the American Rescue Plan meant to aid restaurant owners was recently shot down on similar grounds, The Daily Wire noted. One of the plaintiffs in that case, Antonio Vitolo, says he doesn’t want “special treatment.”
“I just want to be treated equally under the law,” Vitolo said in a statement, according to The Daily Wire. “I am opposed to race and sex discrimination, and I would hope my government lived up to the same principle.”
USDA fires back
A spokesperson for the USDA decried the ruling.
“We respectfully disagree with this temporary order and USDA will continue to forcefully defend our ability to carry out this act of Congress and deliver debt relief to socially disadvantaged borrowers,” they said, according to NBC. “When the temporary order is lifted, USDA will be prepared to provide the debt relief authorized by Congress.”
The agency will not be allowed to hand relief funds out as the case continues to make its way through the courts.