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Federal Judge Halts Debt Relief Program for Farmers of Color

Included in a larger Covid-19 relief bill, the Biden administration program, which a group of white farmers say is racially discriminatory, will be paused while the court considers a firmer injunction.

GREEN BAY, Wis. (CN) --- A decision from a federal judge late Thursday put the brakes on a government program offering loan forgiveness only to farmers of color, which a lawsuit says is unconstitutionally discriminatory against white farmers.

As part of the American Rescue Plan Act signed in March, President Joe Biden's administration rolled out a loan forgiveness program intended to provide billions of dollars in debt relief to socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, namely those who are Black, Hispanic or Latino, American Indian, Asian American or Pacific Islander.

The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, a conservative advocacy group also known as WILL, sued Biden's Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Zach Ducheneaux, chief of the Farm Service Agency, in April on behalf of a group of white farmers claiming they are being unlawfully denied a government benefit solely due to the color of their skin.

The number of plaintiffs has grown to a dozen since the complaint was filed, including white farmers and ranchers from Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Missouri, Ohio, Iowa, Arkansas, Oregon and Kentucky, who claim denying them the program's benefits-- including payment of up to 120% of a socially disadvantaged farmer's debt-- violates their constitutional rights.

Among the plaintiffs are Joseph Schmitz, a first-time farmer of 50 acres of corn and soybeans in western Ohio with a direct loan from the FSA, and Adam Faust, a double-amputee who owns a dairy farm in Calumet County, Wisconsin, featuring 200 acres of land to grow feed for the farm's 70 Holstein milking cows.

U.S. District Judge William Griesbach's ruling released late Thursday is receptive to the white farmers' argument, stating the Biden program lacks a compelling interest for its racial classifications based on vague assertions of discrimination against minority farmers and ranchers in the past. The judge said the temporary restraining order blocking the program is necessary to protect the white farmers from irreparable harm.

Griesbach, a George W. Bush appointee, wrote the administration officials "have not established that the loan forgiveness program targets a specific episode of past or present discrimination," instead only pointing to "statistical and anecdotal evidence of a history of discrimination within the agriculture industry."

The judge offered that the government can implement race-neutral financial programs to help struggling farmers and ranchers, or promote outreach and education on the matter, but it cannot provide help to some farmers and not others on the basis of race.

"The obvious response to a government agency that claims it continues to discriminate against farmers because of their race or national origin is to direct it to stop: it is not to direct it to intentionally discriminate against others on the basis of their race or national origin," Griesbach wrote.

The ruling puts the program on hold while he considers the plaintiffs' request for a preliminary injunction declaring the program's race-based classifications unconstitutional.

Rick Esenberg, WILL's president and general counsel, applauded Griesbach's decision in a statement released Thursday evening, saying "the court recognized that the federal government's plan to condition and allocate benefits on the basis of race raises grave constitutional concerns" and charging the Biden administration with "radically undermining bedrock principles of equality under the law."

Emily Newton, lead attorney for the defendants with the U.S. Department of Justice, could not be immediately reached by phone or email on Friday for comment on the temporary restraining order.

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