White Illinois farmers are challenging part of the recent COVID-19 stimulus law in court because it allocates federal benefits based on skin color.
The civil rights suit, Kent v. Vilsack, was filed in federal court June 7 by Sacramento, California-based Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), a national public-interest law firm. Tom Vilsack is being sued in his official capacity as U.S. secretary of agriculture. The firm has filed two other such lawsuits against Vilsack and expects to file more.
One of the plaintiffs, Ryan Kent of Centralia, Illinois, is a white man who grows soybeans, wheat, and corn on a 5,000-acre farm started by his father. The other plaintiffs are brothers—Matthew and Joshua Morton—of Kell, Illinois, who are also white. They also grow soybeans, wheat, and corn on their farm. Like many farmers, all three have been hurt by the pandemic and have a federal farm loan with an outstanding balance.
In Kent’s situation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved his $90,000 loan in 2010 so he could buy an additional 77 acres for his farming operations. Today, he still owes $43,000—a debt that siphons away a significant portion of his monthly income and, in an industry with low profit margins in normal times, has led to economic hardship for his family during the ongoing pandemic.
But then Congress passed the American Rescue Plan Act, which was signed into law on March 11.
The statute authorizes the federal government to distribute $1.9 trillion in federal funds. Section 1005 of the act directs the secretary to pay up to 120 percent of the outstanding indebtedness of each socially disadvantaged farmer or rancher as of Jan. 1 of this year. Plaintiffs say the program violates the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause, which requires the U.S. government to practice equal protection.
Section 1005 “assumes farmers and ranchers are socially disadvantaged for no other reason than their membership in a racial group,” and “categorically excludes other farmers and ranchers from loan assistance because they do not belong in a ‘socially disadvantaged racial group,’” according to the legal complaint.
“Farmers and ranchers who are Black, American Indian/Alaskan Native, Hispanic, Asian, and Hawaiian/Pacific Islander are eligible for loan assistance, regardless of whether they have suffered any racial discrimination in obtaining farm loans, farming, or elsewhere and regardless of their present economic circumstances. Farmers and ranchers who are white are ineligible for loan assistance, regardless of their individual circumstances.”
USDA officials estimate 17,000 farmers of color qualify for the loan forgiveness.
PLF attorney Glenn Roper told The Epoch Times in an interview that the program, which he described as “racially discriminatory,” is unconstitutional.
“On the customer data worksheet that you fill out with the USDA, it lists five different races and ethnicities. I think all of them are considered socially disadvantaged under this law, except for if you check the ‘white’ box.”
Filing the lawsuit was the right thing to do, Roper said.
“I think it’s important to help establish this principle that the government should not be involved in drawing distinctions on the basis of race. If they want to give all farmers the aid, they can do that, but they can’t say people of a certain ethnic background aren’t allowed to qualify,” he said.
“Whether or not it’s good policy to give taxpayer funds to all the farmers, that’s one thing. But we would not have the same constitutional objection to that kind of a law.”
Kent is “not looking for a handout,” Roper said. “He took these loans with the intent to pay them back. It’s just the inequality and unfairness of forgiving them for one group of his competitors, just because of their race.”
In a similar lawsuit, Faust v. Vilsack, U.S. District Judge William Griesbach of Green Bay, Wisconsin, issued a temporary restraining order against the USDA program on June 10.
“Plaintiffs are excluded from the program based on their race and are thus experiencing discrimination at the hands of their government,” Griesbach wrote.
“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.
“It can also provide better outreach, education, and other resources. But it cannot discriminate on the basis of race.”
Rick Esenberg of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which represents the plaintiffs, said the court “recognized that the federal government’s plan to condition and allocate benefits on the basis of race raises grave constitutional concerns and threatens our clients with irreparable harm.”
“The Biden administration is radically undermining bedrock principles of equality under the law. We look forward to continuing this litigation but urge the administration to change course now.”
Roper described the ruling in Faust v. Vilsack as a “great decision.”
“We actually attached it as supplemental authority in one of our farm cases,” he said.
The USDA press office didn’t respond by press time to a request by The Epoch Times for comment.