The Moms for Liberty conference is being held at the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, across from Reading Terminal Market. (Mark Henninger/Imagic Digital)

Former president Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and other prominent Republican figures will all be in Philadelphia this week. What’s the draw? The annual conference of conservative nonprofit Moms for Liberty.

LGBTQ and anti-censorship groups are planning to hold protests during the “Joyful Warriors Summit,” which takes place Thursday through Sunday at the downtown Marriott.

Best known locally for backing book bans in the Central Bucks School District, Moms for Liberty has over just a couple of years emerged from obscurity to become a leading voice in the country’s battles over school curriculums, gender identity, and race — as well as a player in presidential politics.

Launched initially to protest pandemic restrictions at schools in Florida, the group soon expanded its focus to what it generally calls “parental rights.” 

Its members pressure districts to ban mentions of LGBTQ rights and racial discrimination in the classroom, work to elect conservative school board members, and allegedly harass teachers, librarians, and opposing activists.

The Southern Poverty Law Center recently labeled Moms for Liberty an “anti-government extremist” organization and said it engages in “in anti-student inclusion activities.” The group responded by arguing that it represents parents who “think the public education system is on the wrong track.”

Bringing this year’s national summit to Philadelphia has spurred some consternation locally, including calls for local venues to decline participation in the conference. 

Here’s a look at the group’s origins, its evolution, its practices, and the response to its activities in Philly, Pennsylvania, and the rest of the nation.

How did Moms for Liberty get started?

Tina Descovich and two other women cofounded Moms for Liberty in 2021 after Descovich lost a school board re-election in Brevard County, Florida, against an opponent who criticized her opposition to teacher raises and mask mandates. 

Co-founder Tiffany Justice said they were motivated in part by virtual schooling, which made parents more aware of what their children were being taught.

They allied themselves with DeSantis, who was prepping a presidential run, and helped advocate for two measures he signed into law: 

Florida’s Parental Bill of Rights requires school libraries to pull books if someone objects to their content, and restricts lessons on gender identity and sexual orientation. The so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law bars instruction on those topics in kindergarten through third grade.

How did it gain influence? 

Local chapters of Moms for Liberty, or M4L, quickly sprang up across the U.S. Within a year and a half, the group claimed nearly 100,000 members across 195 chapters in 37 states and organized its first national meeting in Tampa.

The July 2022 event drew 500 people, including representatives of conservative groups like Turning Point USA, Heritage Action, and Liberty University. They attended strategy sessions on how to get media attention and run candidates, and criticized educational practices like social-emotional learning and mental health programs as left-wing indoctrination.

Some Republicans have credited the group for bringing new voters to the GOP, particularly women in their 20s and 30s.

Wait, does the group support Hitler??

Moms for Liberty was in the news earlier this month after an Indiana chapter put an Adolf Hitler quote on the cover of its newsletter. After initially defending the quote, the group pulled it and apologized.

Where does M4L operate?

Moms for Liberty now lists chapters in 43 states, including Delaware and New Jersey. After Florida, it has its second-highest number of chapters in Pennsylvania. 

The group’s website lists locals in 27 Pa. counties, most of them in the commonwealth’s southeast region, including Philadelphia, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, and Bucks, where it’s been highly active.

So what happened in Bucks County? 

M4L’s growth coincided with a spate of school books bans in Pa. and elsewhere, a nationwide censorship movement that followed the heightened focus on diversity curriculums after the 2020 racial justice movement. 

In 2021, a short-lived book ban in the Central York School District drew national attention.

That same year, a Moms for Liberty member and two other allied candidates were elected to the board in the Central Bucks School District, just north of Philadelphia. 

They and their allies argue students shouldn’t have access to books with LGBTQ content, or books that describe nudity or sexuality, in part because teachers could use the books to “groom” or “indoctrinate” students — terms that book censorship advocates and “anti-woke” activists have adopted across the country.

Following a series of packed, angry school board meetings, two books on LGBTQ topics were pulled from Central Bucks libraries this past May. The district was also considering another 60 books for bans.

LGBTQ students in Central Bucks have also complained of a hostile environment at their schools, spurring an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. 

Why are they coming to Philadelphia? 

Last year Moms for Liberty announced it would hold its next summit down the street from the Liberty Bell. Philadelphia was a natural choice, cofounder Descovich told The Inquirer, because the city’s history provides a thematic backdrop for the group’s focus on “preserving American values.”

In addition to Trump and DeSantis, the event’s many speakers will include 2024 Republican presidential contenders Nikki Haley, Asa Hutchinson, and Vivek Ramaswamy.

Last week the group said attendees will also hear from Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., the anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist and nephew of President John F. Kennedy who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The Liberty Bell at night. (Mark Henninger/Imagic Digital)

How is Philly responding? 

Elected officials representing Philadelphia have condemned Moms for Liberty. In an April letter to Marriott asking the hotel not to host the conference, state Sen. Nikil Saval and Reps. Mary Louise Isaacson and Ben Waxman criticized the group’s “divisive rhetoric, discriminatory practices, and promotion of harmful policies that target vulnerable communities, specially the LGBTQ+ community.”

“This organization has a history of spreading misinformation and advocating for discriminatory policies that undermine the values of inclusivity, diversity and respect for all individuals,” the state legislators wrote.

Philadelphia ACT UP has been staging weekly protests outside the downtown Marriott, where the summit is set to take place. A variety of groups are set to hold a series of drag queen story hours, library events, a banned book giveaway, and civil rights protests this week. 

After the conference ends, Moms for Liberty members are reportedly planning to respond by conducting some kind of actions at three Free Library branches, according to the Philadelphia Gay News.

The Museum of the American Revolution has also been the target of protests for its decision to rent space to Moms for Liberty for a welcoming reception on Thursday.

At the same time, at least one local critic of the group argues that those opposed to its views should not themselves succumb to the urge to suppress controversial voices.

Meir Rinde is an investigative reporter at Billy Penn covering topics ranging from politics and government to history and pop culture. He’s previously written for PlanPhilly, Shelterforce, NJ Spotlight,...