A federal judge halted payments for a loan forgiveness program that provides relief to agricultural producers of color.
A temporary restraining order was handed down Thursday afternoon by Judge William Griesbach of Wisconsin's Eastern District, in response to a lawsuit filed by the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty in April.
The group alleged that the Biden administration used an unconstitutional program in an effort to end systemic racism and should make the relief available to white farmers, too.
"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, said Rick Esenberg, president and general counsel for WILL. "The Biden administration is radically undermining bedrock principles of equality under the law.”
The group is representing 12 farmers, two of whom live in Wisconsin: Calumet County dairy farmer Adam Faust, who farms with both legs amputated after being born with spina bifida, and Christopher Baird, who owns a dairy farm near Ferryville in Crawford County.
Faust said at the time the lawsuit was filed that the economic impact didn't hurt any one race more than another in agriculture.
"There should absolutely be no federal dollars going anywhere just based on race," he said.
The group is also representing farmers from Minnesota, South Dakota, Missouri, Iowa, Arkansas, Oregon and Kentucky.
The plaintiffs allege that because race discrimination is barred under the U.S. Constitution, the federal government "must prove that its discriminatory benefit is narrowly tailored and serves a compelling government interest."
In the suit, WILL asked that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Zach Ducheneaux, administrator of the Farm Service Agency, not consider race when determining recipients of the relief funds.
The Biden administration created the loan forgiveness program for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers earlier this year under the American Rescue Plan Act. The program paid up to 120% of direct or guaranteed farm loan balances for producers who are Black, American Indian or Alaskan native, Hispanic or Latino, and Asian American or Pacific Islander.
Officials said that they recognized those groups of farmers and ranchers faced systemic discrimination, resulting in cumulative effects that have led to a substantial loss in the number of socially disadvantaged producers, reduced the amount of farmland they control and contributed to a cycle of debt, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, among other consequences.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, socially disadvantaged communities also saw higher rates of infections, hospitalizations, death, loss of property and economic hurt, officials said.
Since the filing of the lawsuit, the U.S. Department of Agriculture officials have continued to implement the program.
Laura Schulte can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter at @SchulteLaura.
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Judge suspends Biden debt relief program for farmers of color