A Friday morning rally getting started outside the Marriott where the Moms for Liberty conference is being held. (Meir Rinde/Billy Penn)

This week’s Moms for Liberty national summit in Philadelphia has provoked a storm of protests and denunciations, as well as supportive responses and possible counter-protests by the group’s members.

Also known as M4L, the conservative nonprofit pushes for school book bans (including in Bucks County) and is critical of teaching children about race or gender. Its “Joyful Warriors Summit” is happening at the downtown Marriott at 12th and Market through Sunday. 

Former President Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and many other Republican and right-wing figures are speaking during the event.

The group has nearly 300 chapters around the country, including in Philadelphia, where chapter president Sheila Armstrong — a former Democratic City Council candidate-turned-Republican backer, who previously has prominently advocated for increased funding for public schools — told Billy Penn her 20 members are enthusiastically participating in the summit.

They are not in the majority as far as Philly is concerned. 

Protesters brought signs to a Thursday action decrying this weekend’s Moms For Liberty Summit in Philadelphia. (Cory Sharber/WHYY)

Planned protests include highway overpass banners, rallies by progressive grandparent and family groups, a giveaway of banned books, and day-long dance parties on Market Street with a gospel drag show and punk bands.

State and local elected officials have condemned Moms for Liberty, and historians are criticizing a museum that is renting out space for a summit reception. 

Education advocates, LGBTQ groups, a Jewish mens’ organization, progressive political activists, and many others have issued statements opposing its mission and activities. 

Who’s spoken out against M4L?

Reactions from local elected officials and progressive groups have focused on the activities of Moms for Liberty chapters in Pennsylvania and other states. 

These include their efforts to get books on sexuality, LGBTQ identity, and Black history pulled from library shelves in some school districts, and allegations that M4L-allied school board members and administrators have fostered hostile environments for LGBTQ students.

Here are some excerpts of their statements:

  • Mayor Jim Kenney: “We oppose this group’s policy goals, which include attempts to disregard history, ban books, and silence conversations about race, gender, and sexuality. We believe these policies are harmful to youth and I am especially troubled when these policies target classrooms, libraries, and any space where children deserve to feel safe, seen, and supported at all times.” He added that the city also takes freedom of speech “very seriously,” and is prioritizing safety and the protection of individuals’ constitutional rights “without regard to the views expressed by any group.”
  • Celina Morrison, executive director of the Office of LGBT Affairs: The summit “may stir up fear or distress for our BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ communities. We urge all those affected to take the appropriate measures to ensure their well-being while Moms for Liberty is visiting our city.”
  • State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, member of the Pennsylvania LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus co-chair: “I’m extremely disappointed to see this summit take place in our city. Our city shouldn’t be a backdrop for hate. We can’t allow the type of rhetoric and ideology that far-right groups, like Moms for Liberty, promote prevent us from becoming a more fair and equal society.”
  • State Rep. Morgan Cephas:  “While we welcome honest and reasonable discourse in our society, we cannot [condone] rhetoric that espouses hate, fear and exclusion to be presented in a public forum in this city or any other municipality across our great nation.”
  • State Sen. Nikil Saval and Reps. Mary Louise Isaacson and Ben Waxman, in an April letter to Marriott, criticized the group’s “divisive rhetoric, discriminatory practices, and promotion of harmful policies that target vulnerable communities, specially the LGBTQ+ community.”
  • Education Law Center-PA: Groups like M4L “harm us. They try to silence us. And they have the potential to divide us – when we need to be working together to create­ school communities that are welcoming and inclusive for all of our children.”
  • The Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, which is holding a convention at the Marriott at the same time: “The FJMC strongly advocates for equal rights for all, including the LGBTQIA+ community… We welcome all participants with love, regardless of sexual orientation or identity… The FJMC does not endorse… the sentiments that [M4L] or their speakers may express during their conference.”
A Friday morning rally at 12th and Market, across from where the Moms for Liberty conference is being held. (Meir Rinde/Billy Penn)

What protests and actions are planned?

Anti-M4L events were under way even before the summit began on Thursday and are continuing through its conclusion. According to listings put out by ACT UP Philadelphia and other groups, they include:

  • Rally Against Moms for Liberty, People for the American Way/Grandparents for Truth/Defense of Democracy. Friday-Saturday, 12th and Market.
  • Rally for Freedom to Read followed by a march to the Marriott, Indivisible Philadelphia. Friday, Parkway Central Library.
  • Fabulous Families for Freedom Rally, Philly Children’s Movement/Philly Childcare Collective, Saturday, 12th and Filbert.

Participants in the Moms for Liberty summit are reportedly planning counterprotests or other actions at three Free Library locations that are hosting LGBTQ-related events this week: Philadelphia City Institute on Rittenhouse Square, Independence Library, and the Parkway Central Library’s Children’s Department and Field Teen Center. 

So who’s running the local chapter?

Sheila Armstrong chairs Moms for Liberty’s Philadelphia chapter. Formerly a Democrat who tried to unseat City Council President Darrell Clarke in 2019, Armstrong was a plaintiff in the landmark lawsuit seeking to force the state to provide more school funding to Philadelphia and other underresourced districts.

She’s a longtime public housing resident, the single mother of two sons, one with autism, and an advocate for autistic kids.

Armstrong says she soured on Democrats after the local establishment attacked her for running against Clarke and allegedly forced her out of a job at the Register of Wills. She was also put off by hostility to her religious faith when she was active in progressive organizations.

“In all honesty, between them and the other groups, the reason why I like Moms for Liberty so much is because I could sit there and say, ‘I’m a child of God, I believe in God,’ and I don’t feel villainized,” she told Billy Penn.

She switched her registration to Republican, worked for Mehmet Oz’s Senate campaign last year (she says they still keep in touch), and attended the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, where she met various conservative “mom” organizations. Armstrong, who is Black, said at least one of the groups was palpably racist, but M4L was welcoming.

Armstrong said her passion lies in “making sure parents understand their rights” to shape their children’s education, especially parents of kids with developmental or emotional disabilities. She was looking forward to a leadership training session at the summit on how to be a parent advocate.

Critics say Moms for Liberty is broadly homophobic and hostile toward LGBTQ people, and sometimes racist in its campaigns to restrict students’ access to books on Black history and civil rights. 

The Southern Poverty Law Center described it as a far-right organization whose social media accounts and real-world activities reflect views that are “anti-government and conspiracy propagandist, anti-LGBTQ and anti-gender identity, and anti-inclusive curriculum.”

Armstrong argued that Moms for Liberty groups operate somewhat independently, and that reports of local chapters pursuing offensive policies do not reflect the parent organization’s aims.

“If those chapters are run by people that are prejudiced, homophobic, racist, or anything of that nature, that’s what’s coming out. We see what’s in their heart,” she said. “Here in Philadelphia, we don’t have those issues.”

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,...