The federal government is threatening to revoke funding it provides to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to administer a food assistance program unless the state clarifies its position on whether a recipient’s photograph must appear on the card used to receive benefits.

DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew received a letter Thursday from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in which the agency threatened to cut the funding it supplies to cover 50 percent of the administrative costs of the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps.

The USDA says a state policy that gives the impression that benefits may be accessed only by people whose photographs appear on an Electronic Benefits Transfer card is a civil rights violation. An estimated 120,000 households in Maine qualify for benefits and use state-issued EBT cards to buy food, all of which is paid for with federal funds.

“Since Maine has represented to (the USDA) that the state’s EBT photo program is optional, the state must affirmatively demonstrate that SNAP clients have a choice whether to have a photo on their EBT card and their choice does not adversely affect their SNAP eligibility,” Kurt Messner, administrator for the USDA’s Northeast Region, wrote in the letter dated Thursday.

Messner went on to say that “there are significant civil rights concerns about the state’s practice of taking photos of all non-applicant household members.” The practice, according to Messner, may represent a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“Any individual who applies for SNAP on behalf of eligible household members must be able to access the program without fear,” Messner wrote.

In an email sent Thursday night to the Portland Press Herald by a spokesman for her office, Mayhew confirmed that she received the USDA letter.

“We received a letter today from the Obama administration following their August site visit to Maine where they critically examined Gov. LePage’s implementation of photos on EBT cards,” Mayhew said. “We remain 100 percent committed to placing photos on EBT cards. While we are still reviewing the letter, it is imperative that Maine is able to implement common-sense reforms to ensure the integrity of our welfare system, preserving resources for the truly needy while protecting taxpayers.”

The state has 45 days to submit a plan for addressing the issues raised by the federal government.

DHHS spokesman David Sorensen said Thursday night that the photo ID measure is a policy, not a rule or law. He said Mayhew plans to review some of the USDA allegations, including the claim that recipients are given the impression that a photo is mandatory.

Representatives of the Food and Nutrition Service – a division of the USDA – visited Maine the week of Aug. 18. During the visit, they met with state officials, SNAP recipients, retailers and advocacy groups in Portland, Ellsworth and Bangor. One of those meetings was held at the Preble Street Resource Center in Portland.

“People came to those meetings and told us they were being forced to have their photos taken for their EBT cards,” said Donna Yellen, chief program officer at the Preble Street center.

Several retailers also were confused by the state program, and feared they might be accused of discrimination if they turned away an EBT cardholder for lack of a photograph, Yellen said. She noted that family members or neighbors often use EBT cards, especially if a person is sick and can’t go to the grocery store. The state is protected from fraudulent use of the cards, she said, because only the eligible cardholder knows the personal identification number, or PIN.

Earlier this year, Gov. Paul LePage came out in support of photo identification on benefit cards, arguing that it would prevent fraudulent use of taxpayer money.

Mayhew released a statement in April that said the photo would help staff verify the identity of the benefit recipient and would be helpful in cases where cards have been illegally sold or when multiple cards are in the possession of an individual.

Under the program, Maine residents who are younger than 19, older than 60, blind or disabled, or victims of domestic violence are exempt from having a photo ID on their EBT card.

The USDA cited several examples in which the state gave the impression that a photo ID is mandatory.

The agency said a mass mailing sent to clients in the Bangor area states that “most cardholders will be required to have their photo placed on their EBT card.”

A poster hung in three district offices states that “in 2014, Maine will require most of the state’s EBT cards to have photos,” the USDA letter goes on to say.

Advocates for low-income families approved of the USDA’s position, saying families or individuals who are going hungry should be helped, not hindered.

“Maine has a real hunger problem and it’s very serious,” said Chris Hastedt, public policy director for Maine Equal Justice Partners. “(SNAP) is being administered in a way that the state is creating more hunger problems and greater barriers for those who are hungry. The state has to tell people upfront that they have a choice about the photo ID.”

The Maine chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union also reacted to the USDA letter.

“Requiring photo ID on EBT cards is incredibly costly, it’s ineffective and the Department of Agriculture has said it’s illegal,” Zachary Heiden, the ACLU of Maine’s legal director, said in a written statement. “If the administration wants to do what’s best for the state, it will stop punishing people who are struggling in this tough economy.”