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Sandwiched between an upscale gated Mesa suburb and an upscale gated retirement home lined with American flags, about 100 guests gathered at Pathfinder Academy for a Moms for Liberty town hall and Q&A on Thursday September 14th.
Moms for Liberty-branded signs lazily placed along the charter school entrance doors read “STOP WOKE INDOCTRINATION” and “mom (noun): One who gets the JOB DONE.” The same signs lined the beige foyer that was otherwise blank except for a few recreations from classic American history art, like Washington Crossing the Delaware or John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence and a table reading “CONSTITUTION WEEK” displaying a framed copy of, you guessed it, the U.S. Constitution. Turning Point Action had a recruitment booth with their usual TPUSA-branded anti-abortion stickers alongside “Back the Blue” and “Don’t Tread on Me” pins.
Only about half the seats in the Pathfinder Academy gymnasium filled up and the front rows were mostly dedicated to the Arizona lawmakers joining the stage. Also sitting in the front was Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell. Mitchell wasn’t listed on the event flier and didn’t speak, but her attendance was welcomed by Moms for Liberty co-founder/lead mouthpiece Tina Descovich.
Thursday’s town hall started with Descovich announcing plans to launch three chapters throughout Maricopa county, starting in Mesa.
“We’ve been traveling to towns around the country and putting on a series of town halls called ‘Giving Parents a Voice’ and helping bring leaders from each state that are making decisions about education,” Descovich opened.
“The Mesa-Maricopa chapter gets to start with the national team coming in and a town hall with all your elected leaders and even your State Superintendent so we really want this chapter to be strong.”
wtf is moms for liberty?
Disgruntled by losing her own school board seat, Tina Descovich co-founded Moms for Liberty (MFL) at the end of 2020 alongside fellow former Florida school board members Bridget Ziegler and Tiffany Justice. At the time, MFL’s main gripe was with COVID-19 safety measures in schools. They quickly moved on to target so-called “critical race theory,” teacher unions and LGBTQ+ civil rights.
Moms for Liberty hides their hateful goals by framing themselves under the innocuous-sounding “parental rights movement” or referring to themselves as “joyful warriors” fighting “woke indoctrination,” but their mission is clear to anyone paying attention.
MFL vocally campaigned for the Florida Parental Rights in Education Act aka the “Don’t Say Gay” bill signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis early last year (Descovich was later appointed to DeSantis’ so-called Commission on Ethics). Other MFL chapters have supported their state’s own anti-LGBTQ legislation, including the chapter in Yellowstone County who publicly supported the currently-blocked Montana House Bill 359, prohibiting minors from events with drag performers.
Last July on Twitter, MFL had their national account temporarily suspended after they referred to gender dysphoria as a “mental disorder that is being normalized by predators across the USA.”
Some chapter leaders are a bit more obvious in their anti-LGBTQ agenda. During an interview with MSNBC’s Field Report with Paola Ramos, a member of the Miami-Dade chapter in Florida, Crystal Alonso, advocated for LGBTQ+ students to be segregated from straight, cisgender students.
MFL’s hate campaign has unfortunately seen some success in banning books they deem inappropriate or “anti-American.” PEN America lists Moms for Liberty as the most influential advocacy groups leading the book bans seen in the 2022-2023 school year.
Tennessee’s Williamson County MFL chapter attempted to ban books related to Civil Rights, Black historical figures, segregation, and Indigenous history. An MFL chapter in New Hampshire put a snitch bounty out encouraging students, parents, teachers, and fellow school staff members to report any educators teaching whatever they deem to be “critical race theory.” At the Vero Beach High School library in Indian River County, MFL helped get the Diary of Anne Frank pulled from the shelves. In North Carolina, another Moms for Liberty chapter filed a complaint over five books available at the Wake County Public School System over their LGBTQ content and discussions of anti-Black racism and police violence in the United States.
In Arkansas, a Lonoke County MFL chapter member, Melissa Bosch was caught on audio fantasizing about murdering a school librarian at the Cabot Public School District. Police declined to charge Bosch. The district barred her from school grounds but Bosch (who no longer has children enrolled in the district) is currently suing over her ban.
“Ladies, ban any good books lately,” joked Jason Bedrick, a research fellow with The Heritage Foundation, at Thursday’s town hall in Mesa. Bedrick went on to defend MFL from accusations of being “book banners” because all the books they’ve gotten removed from schools and libraries can be found on Amazon or Barnes and Noble.
Bedrick also briefly attempted to defend and explain the context of the Adolf Hitler quote a Hamilton County MFL chapter featured in their “Parent Brigade” newsletter but then conceded in his own speech that the Indiana chapter apologized. “Granted we could all use a lot less Holocaust imagery and comparisons these days on all sides so it’s a point well taken.”
The Books Banners Set Up Shop in Maricopa
After introductions, the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer blessing the meeting, Descovich invited a member of the new MFL Mesa chapter, Lisa Jensen, on stage to recite the “Madison Minute.” The Madison Minute is a MFL tradition where they waste even more time reciting a chosen line from a Founding Father, the U.S. Constitution or another document instrumental in the formation of America so they can claim they “root all the work they do in the Founding principles,” according to Descovich.
Jensen chose James Madison’s “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives” explaining that she hopes “this new chapter of Moms for Liberty will be able to be a powerful group who are able to make a difference in this area.”
Then there was a brief ad from Byron Clark, the “School Board Leaders Trainer” for the Leadership Institute. Clark explained his role is training “activists” (a word he says he’s taking from the “political left”) to run for office, especially school boards.
Moms for Liberty also likes to pretend they’re a grassroots organization but their ties to long-standing financial backers/organizers of the religious far-right, like the Leadership Institute and The Heritage Foundation, are inseparable. After MFL co-founder Bridget Ziegler stepped down from her leadership role in Spring 2021, she went on to serve as the Vice President of School Board Leadership programs for the Leadership Institute. When MFL comes to town, the Leadership Institute follows—holding sessions on fundraising, political strategizing, debate training, how to run for school board and how to professionalize themselves to manipulate the media.
At the Mesa town hall, the Leadership Institute again appeared as a main sponsor and Clark hosted a “school board campaign and activism training” earlier in the day at a nearby Marriott.
The star speaker of the night was State Superintendent Tom Horne. Horne was the only Arizona elected official to get their own individual speech. Descovich claimed to have only just recently learned about Horne, but says she was “blown away by his resume.” Horne has been attempting to destroy public education since long before Moms for Liberty ever formed. During Horne’s first round as Superintendent (2003-2011) he infamously targeted Mexican-American Studies at the Tucson Unified School District and teachers with “accented speech.” Now, he’s attempting to put an end to dual-language student programs and uphold discriminatory bans against transgender student athletes. All of this he bragged about during his MFL speech.
With three more years left in his term, Horne repeatedly emphasized that his goals for 2024 would be getting as many far-right school board candidates elected as he can. Horne said he was working with multiple conservative groups to get their candidates well funded, putting a focus on Paradise Valley, Scottsdale, Mesa, Gilbert, and Chandler.
During the 2022 midterm, Moms for Liberty endorsed about 500 candidates. 275 of them won their school board seat.
Ironically, though probably lost on the audience, the speaker immediately following Horne was Catalina Stubbe, the MFL Hispanic Outreach National Director, who gave a brief speech advertising their accompanying Spanish-language course the following day. Dual-language programs for me, not for thee. Stubbe asked the audience if there were any “Hispanics” in the audience. In a statistical anomaly for Arizona where Hispanics/Latinos make up nearly a third of the total state population, only one person raised their hand.
For the remainder of the town hall, State Senators Jake Hoffman, Justine Wadsack and State Representatives Justin Heap, and Barbara Parker joined the stage for what was supposed to be a roundtable discussion. All are members of the AZ Freedom Caucus and have been responsible for their own laundry list bills seeking to ban books and criminalize LGBTQ people. However, in typical loudmouth politician fashion, each lawmaker blabbed for far too long during their introduction and left almost no time for discussion questions.
Sen. Hoffman claimed to be working alongside a City Council he refused to name to create a “model ordinance policy” mirroring a book banning bill he previously sponsored: HB 2495. Hoffman’s legislation, signed into law by former Gov. Doug Ducey, singled out “sexually explicit materials,” but the advocates worry the language of the bill could be used to restrict access to any book that includes reference to sex or sexuality. An early version of the bill even included books featuring “homosexuality.”
“I’m literally writing a model ordinance policy for them to put a criminal felony penalty on exposing children to sexually explicit materials. That means libraries too,” Hoffman bragged.
In Sen. Wadsack’s introduction, she bragged about storming the Vail school board in May 2021 alongside Purple for Parents, a local far-right, militia-heavy counter to the Red for Ed movement, to protest COVID-19 safety measures. Wadsack greatly embellished her history of school board harassment, lying to the MFL audience that the Vail mob frightened all the board members to quit that night and subsequently installing their own board leaders. The reality is that the cops were called and the board meeting was canceled.
“We started a parent’s rights revolution in little Tucson, Arizona and I’m very proud of that fact,” gloated Wadsack after telling her tall tale.
Rep. Heap used up a portion of his time to play audio he claimed was his son’s high school English teacher. In the audio, the unnamed teacher highlights American war crimes during the Vietnam War, including the use of Agent Orange and murder of civilians, while explaining why other countries may view the U.S. negatively. The crowd audibly gasped at the teacher’s comments. Rep. Heap further claimed to have reported the teacher to the principal for his historically accurate comments.
Throughout the night, the AZ Republicans repeatedly highlighted audience member and Mesa Public Schools board member Rachel Waldon for her willingness to report on “objectionable” content in her district, which is the largest in Arizona. Horne says he was alerted to “a visual” that characterized the United States as “a white supremacist country.” Rep. Heap complained about training guidelines at Mesa Public Schools sent to him by Waldon that included modules on intersectionality, unconscious bias, neurodiversity, anti-racism, microaggressions and restorative justice.
“Why aren’t there five more Rachel Waldens stepping up and running for the school board?,” asked state senator Jake Hoffman.
Following long-winded introductions, Descovich managed to ask how the lawmakers plan to better student test scores and improve Arizona schools. Rep. Parker’s bold plan? To resurrect her unconstitutional bill that would force students to say the Pledge of Allegiance in schools.
In June 2023, the Southern Poverty Law Center rightfully classified Moms for Liberty as a hate group. Members of at least nine chapters have been linked to the fascist Proud Boys gang. Enrique Tarrio, the former Proud Boy leader recently sentenced to 22 years for his role in the January 6 insurrection, even praised MFL as the “gestapo with vaginas.” However, the SPLC designation came with the oft-contradictory “antigovernment” label, misunderstanding the ways MFL works alongside government officials and the institutions of the United States to craft an America in their neo-segregationist vision. As Mesa’s town hall shows, MFL organizes closely with lawmakers who share their hateful views.
“we don’t co-parent with fascists”
Communities across the country have also mobilized to counter the hate being ushered in at school boards across America thanks to Moms for Liberty. Defense for Democracy was founded by Karen Svoboda and Laura Leigh to prevent the election of three MFL-backed candidates in their hometown. As MFL expanded, chapters of Defense for Democracy began to pop up around the country, as well as similar organizations like STOP Moms for Liberty and Red, Wine and Blue. In July 2023 when MFL held their annual summit in Philadelphia, Defense for Democracy joined alongside the numerous groups and individuals countering their presence.
While Defense for Democracy and STOP Moms for Liberty have no local presence in Arizona yet, the Arizona Secular Coalition has been fighting against Christian nationalism from taking total hold of schools for over a decade.
“Our public schools are for everyone,” the Arizona Secular Coalition’s executive director, Jeanne Casteen, said to LCRW.
“The majority of families in Arizona choose their local public schools. If a group of so-called ‘Christians’ want to use their religion to justify their bigotry, then it’s not Christianity, it’s white Christian nationalism, and there’s a big difference. They need to be called out at every opportunity for what they are: bigots,” Casteen explained.
Most recently, Casteen and other locals have been vocally countering the school board reign of Heather Rooks, elected to Peoria Unified School District in 2022 and Rebecca Hill, elected in 2020. Together, the duo voted against a science curriculum because “science was created by God,” and struck down a free computer program for low-income students for making reference to “diversity, equity and inclusion.” Hill and Rooks were also accused of discrimination after they attempted to terminate a transgender teacher’s employment contract.
Rooks, who has been whining about pronouns, LGBTQ books and biology textbooks long before Moms for Liberty came to Maricopa, recently received a complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation for repeatedly citing biblical scripture during board meetings.
“This is the death rattle of the evangelical extremists,” said Casteen.
“They are loud, but we are many.”