Walking into the Moms for Liberty summit in Philadelphia on Friday, one woman, dressed in red, white and blue, approached a fellow attendee with a friendly greeting that could not have been more site-specific: “Hey there, fellow extremist!”
The self-described parental rights group Moms for Liberty – recently designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an extremist antigovernmental group – brought out plenty of parental rights proponents, presidential candidates and protesters at its national convention, held just blocks away from the birthplace of liberty and just days before the nation celebrates its independence.
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Former President Donald Trump headlined the summit’s first full day of events, speaking to the Downtown Marriott crowd late Friday afternoon. The currently twice-indicted former president’s appearance, which came after earlier speeches by fellow Republican presidential candidates Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, underscores the organization’s quick rise to prominence within the conservative sphere.
“In school board races, PTA meetings and town halls across the nation, you have taught the radical left, the Marxists and communists a lesson they will never forget,” Trump said Friday. “Don't mess with American moms.”
Trump promised that if elected, he would bring education rights back to the states and to give preferential funding to schools that abolish teacher tenure and adopt merit pay. He also vowed to make school principals into elected officials whom parents could hold accountable.
Among the reasons that it made sense for Moms for Liberty to stage its annual event in Pennsylvania: The commonwealth trails only Florida in the number of county chapters – 27 and counting. Moms for Liberty is now up to 285 chapters in 44 states, with nearly 120,000 members nationwide.
Melanie Lewis, a new member of the Moms for Liberty Chester County Chapter, told City & State that DeSantis and Trump’s speeches were among the motivating factors in her attendance. DeSantis used his time to pitch his fight against what he calls “the woke agenda” and to tout his state’s right-leaning trend as a blueprint for conservative success.
“I love the energy and being with like-minded people,” Lewis said, adding that the concept of parental rights “is all born out of just frustration and anger…It’s just instinctual as a woman to want to protect your children.”
Trump’s appearance quickly turned into a rambling campaign speech that veered from subject to subject, including President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, China and his most recent indictment. He also used the speech to vilify issues related to gender ideology and pronoun usage.
“Instead of teaching them to say their prayers, they teach them to recite their pronouns,” Trump claimed in an evidence-free riff. “For all the public schools that are engaged in this militant and country-destroying practice, I will instruct the Department of Justice to pursue them.”
The fanfare inside the Downtown Marriott was met with vocal opposition outside, as dozens of protesters were stationed outside the Center City hotel denouncing the group and its attempts at destabilizing public education.
State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, co-chair of the Pennsylvania LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus, was among several elected officials who joined protesters in the city Friday.
“I’ve not had one constituent say to me, ‘Representative, we need to ban books,’ ” Kenyatta said to the crowd at the corner of 12th and Market streets, just down the block from where the event was taking place. “We have to make sure our schools are places where kids are safe, educated and loved.”
School boards and teachers' unions have become top targets for Moms for Liberty’s members, who claim without evidence that those entities are driving the indoctrination they believe is occurring in the public school system. Teachers’ unions haven’t held back in their response.
Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said that Moms for Liberty “espouses disgusting, hate-filled rhetoric and promotes actively discriminatory practices.”
“Their agenda, the Southern Poverty Law Center notes, is outlined in their hateful social media posts that ‘reflect(s] views and actions that are anti-government and conspiracy propagandist, anti-LGBTQ and anti-gender identity, and anti-inclusive curriculum,’ ” Jordan said in a statement.
A prime example of national culture wars bleeding into local politics is in Central Bucks School District, where those in support of and against the parental rights movement in education have been very outspoken about the district’s board’s moves to ban the use of Pride flags and what it has termed “advocacy” in classrooms, among other content restrictions.
Ben Busick, a recent graduate of Central Bucks South High School who came out as nonbinary in their sophomore year of high school in 2021, told City & State that going to school every day was “literal hell” knowing their identity wasn’t going to be supported by many within the building.
The pronoun policy “created this dynamic that forced teachers to either step in and fear (for their job) or do nothing and let students get harassed,” Busick said. “Unfortunately, many chose the latter.”
Busick added that they will continue to speak out because they understand what students going back to the school will experience when they return in the fall.
“I don’t want those kids to go back to a toxic environment,” she said. “It’s less of a school and more like a microcosm of the political culture in the U.S.”
A version of this story first appeared on City & State Pennsylvania.