NEW YORK (AP) — To its members, it’s a grassroots army of “merry warriors” who “don’t co-parent with the government.”
For anti-hate scholars, it’s a well-connected extremist group attacking inclusion in schools.
And for Republicans vying for the presidency, he has become a potential key partner in the fight for the 2024 nomination.
Moms for Liberty didn’t exist during the last presidential campaign, but the Florida-based nonprofit that champions “parental rights” in education has quickly become a major player for 2024, spurred in part by GOP officials, politicians and donors.
The group that has been at the forefront of the conservative movement targeting books referencing race and gender identity and electing right-wing candidates to local school boards across the country is organizing one of the next big rallies for Republican presidential candidates. At least four are listed as speakers at the annual Moms for Liberty summit in Philadelphia later this month.
Former President Donald Trump, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and biotech entrepreneur and ‘anti-revival’ activist Vivek Ramaswamy announced they would speak at the meeting end of June.
The group said it was in talks to bring others to the conference, including Republican Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a fringe Democrat known for his anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. .
The widespread interest in the event underscores how battles surrounding gender and race have become core issues for Republican voters. It also highlights Republicans’ eagerness to embrace a group that has drawn backlash for spreading anti-LGBTQ+ ideas and stripping libraries and classrooms of diverse material.
The group was founded in 2021 by Tiffany Justice, Tina Descovich and Bridget Ziegler, all current and former Florida school board members who were unhappy with student mask and quarantine policies during the pandemic.
In two years, the organization has grown to 285 chapters in 44 states, Justice said. The group claims 120,000 active members.
He has expanded his activism in local school districts to target books he deems inappropriate or “un-American,” ban teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity, require teachers to disclose student pronouns to parents and remove diversity, equity and inclusion programs. schools.
The group also sought to elect like-minded candidates to school boards. In 2022, just over half of the 500 nominees he has endorsed for school boards nationwide have won their races, Justice said.
Moms for Liberty bills itself as a non-partisan, grassroots effort started by passionate parents who call themselves “merry warriors.” Still, the group’s close ties to Republican organizations, donors and politicians raise questions about partisanship and doubts about its true nature.
Co-founder Ziegler, who left the board in late 2021 but remains supportive of the group, is married to Florida’s Republican Party chairman. Still a member of the Sarasota County School Board, she is also the director of the Leadership Institute, a conservative organization that regularly trains Moms for Liberty members.
Marie Rogerson, who took Ziegler’s place on the Moms for Liberty board, is a seasoned political strategist who previously led the 2018 campaign for Florida State Rep. Randy Fine, a Republican.
The group also quickly gained a close ally in DeSantis. In 2021, he signed Florida’s “Parents Bill of Rights,” which identified parents’ rights to direct their children’s education and health care and was used to fight local student mask mandates. In 2022, he signed a law banning sexual orientation and gender identity instruction from kindergarten through third grade, a ban that opponents had called a “Don’t Say Gay” bill and which has since been extended to Grade 12. Moms for Liberty had loudly defended both bills.
Ziegler appeared behind DeSantis in photographs from the signing ceremony for this latest bill. When the group held its inaugural summit in Tampa last year, it hosted speeches from DeSantis and his wife, Casey, presenting the governor with a “sword of freedom.”
And while the group is a 501(c)4 nonprofit that doesn’t have to disclose its donors, there are other glimpses of how powerful Republicans have helped fuel its rise.
Its summit sponsors, who have paid tens of thousands of dollars for these slots, include the Leadership Institute, the conservative Heritage Foundation and Patriot Mobile, a far-right Christian mobile phone company whose PAC has spent hundreds of thousands dollars to try to take over. Texas School Boards.
Maurice Cunningham, a former political science professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston who has followed the growth and relationships of Moms for Liberty, said its ability to attract so many high-profile Republican candidates to its second annual summit is a testament to his support for the establishment.
“Yes, there are definitely moms who live in their communities and so on who are active,” Cunningham said. “But this is a top-down, centrally controlled operation, with rich people at the top and political professionals working for them.”
Justice said the band’s work with conservative organizations and DeSantis shows they care about the band’s cause, but doesn’t mean it isn’t popular.
Even though Moms for Liberty has aligned itself with establishment Republicans, scholars say its activism is part of a new wave of far-right anti-student efforts across the country.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate and extremism nationwide, named Moms for Liberty an “extremist anti-government” group in its annual report released last week, along with 11 other groups it says him, use parents’ rights as a vehicle. to attack public education and make schools less welcoming to minority and LGBTQ+ students.
The label comes after some of the group’s leaders and chapter presidents were accused of harassing community members and amplifying false allegations related to gender controversies.
Justice said calling Moms for Liberty’s activities extremist is “alarming” and that the group’s efforts to fund and endorse school board races show it is not anti-government.
She said the group removes chapter presidents who violate its code of conduct and has gay members and leaders, including a member of its national leadership team.
A growing coalition of local organizations that promote inclusiveness in education have begun to rally against Moms for Liberty and are demanding Marriott stop the upcoming conference. Defense of Democracy, a New York organization founded in direct opposition to Moms for Liberty, plans to bring members to Philadelphia to demonstrate in person.
“They’re so loud and so aggressive that people are afraid to shut up,” Defense of Democracy founder Karen Svoboda said of Moms for Liberty. “You know, if you see bigotry and homophobia, there’s a civic responsibility to speak out against that.”
Moms for Liberty, in turn, said it would tighten security at its meeting. Marriott did not respond to the petition, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “extremist” designation has not deterred any Republican candidate who is considering speaking.
Haley responded by tweeting, “If @Moms4Liberty is a ‘hate group’ add me to the list.” Ramaswamy took the stage for a town hall Thursday with Justice and tweeted that SPLC stands for “Selling Political Lies to Corporations.”
These responses come as no surprise to Cunningham, who said that in the current climate, the “extremist” label is “almost a badge of honor” within the GOP.
Moms for Liberty, for its part, raises funds. After the SPLC report was released, Justice said the group quickly raised $45,000, an amount that a larger donor agreed to match.
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