A look at the groups pushing anti-LGBTQ policies in Pennsylvania schools

west shore school district parents and community members pushing back against anti-lgbtq groups in Pennsylvania schools

Parents and community members demonstrating outside the West Shore School District administration building in opposition to the Independence Law Center on Mar. 18, 2024 (Photo: Sean Kitchen)

By Sean Kitchen

May 1, 2024

Republicans may have suffered embarrassing school board defeats across Pennsylvania in 2023, but that’s not stopping them from working with anti-LGBTQ groups.

A right-wing law firm with connections to an anti-LGBTQ extremist organization has gained a foothold in school districts across South Central Pennsylvania, and on Tuesday, parents and community members from the West Shore School District filled a board meeting to share their concerns over the Independence Law Center.

Kristina Moon from the Education Law Center, an organization that advocates for access to quality public education for all Pennsylvania students, delivered a presentation to the West Shore School Board in York County about the implications of seeking legal advice from groups Independence Law Center.

Moon, a senior attorney with the Education Law Center, warned of potential civil rights lawsuits and the costs they carry if the district discriminates against LGBTQ students.

“I think sometimes people just might not be aware of how much cost can come from litigation following civil rights violations,” Moon said in an interview following the presentation.

“We find that it’s useful information for school board members that are considering … and if they undertake to restrict students’ rights, then that is going to likely cost them at litigation stage or down the road in some way in addition to costing students their right to access in schools.”

Central Bucks School District in Southeastern Pennsylvania is a great example of school districts getting ensnared in litigation for discriminating against LGBTQ students and teachers. The district shelled out over $2 million defending book bans and discriminating against students and teachers.

The Independence Law Center is the legal arm of the Pennsylvania Family Institute, which serves as the state chapter for the Family Research Council. The Family Research Council is a christian nationalist organization that has been labeled an extremist group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Since 2015, the Pennsylvania Family Institute has spent over $400,000 lobbying on issues such as education, religious liberty, marijuana and civil rights, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State.

Just last year, when school board debates were raging across Pennsylvania, the organization spent over $90,000 on lobbying services. It was the most they spent on lobbying during that 10 year period.

The Pennsylvania Department of State’s lobbying database shows that all four members of the Independence Law Center’s legal team are registered lobbyists with the Pennsylvania Family Institute. This includes Randall Wegner, Jeremy Samek, retired Pennsylvania Superior Court Judge Cheryl Allen and Janice Martino-Gottshall.

Pennsylvania Family Institute staffers can be seen routinely at anti-LGBTQ, anti-abortion and education rallies or committee hearings in the state capitol. This included press conferences pushing bans on transgender athletes from participating in sports to committee hearings targeting books and LGBTQ students.

A recent story published by the York Daily Record states that the Independence Law Center has a presence in 40% of the school districts in York County and that four districts have recently signed contracts with the organization or are engaged in talks with them.

The districts include the West Shore School District, the North York County School District, the Dover Area School District and the South Western School District.

Parents and community members in the West Shore School District have begun pushing back against the Independence Law Center’s influence in the district.

Ben Hodge, a parent in the West Shore School District and a 23-year teacher at Central York School District, explained how Central York, which passed the largest book ban in the country, was a test case for the Independence Law Center.

“Central York School District was … pretty much the epicenter of step one in a test project for what we are seeing now happening across many of our districts in York and Cumberland County in central Pennsylvania,” Hodge said in an interview.

“We’re seeing a lot of the same things that was happening in our district, such as firing of solicitors, going after superintendents, going after faculty and staff calling them groomers, indoctrinations, and creating fear amongst the community to put distrust in public education.”

“Their long-term goal to dismantle public education.”

Author

  • Sean Kitchen

    Sean Kitchen is the Keystone’s political correspondent, based in Harrisburg. Sean is originally from Philadelphia and spent five years working as a writer and researcher for Pennsylvania Spotlight.

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