"Parental rights" started on the Christian fringe — now it's the GOP's winning issue

Right-wing Christians have pushed for parental control over education for years. Suddenly it's the GOP's main focus

By Kathryn Joyce

Investigative Reporter

Published January 12, 2022 6:00AM (EST)

Angry parents reacts in objection during a Portland Public Schools board meeting to discuss a proposed vaccine mandate for students on October 26, 2021 in Portland, Oregon. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images)
Angry parents reacts in objection during a Portland Public Schools board meeting to discuss a proposed vaccine mandate for students on October 26, 2021 in Portland, Oregon. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

Not that long ago, the notion of "parental rights" as a conservative organizing principle was primarily associated with subcultures of the religious right. In the late 2000s, Michael Farris, founder of the advocacy group Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) as well as Patrick Henry College — the homeschool-marketed institution briefly attended by Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina — started another nonprofit, ParentalRights.org. 

That group's primary purpose was to advocate for the passage of a constitutional amendment declaring, "The liberty of parents to direct the upbringing, education, and care of their children is a fundamental right," which no international treaty or law could supersede. Farris's HSLDA published tip-sheets advising parents what to do "when social workers come knocking" (basically, don't answer), and took frequent aim at the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which Farris claimed would prevent parents from "reasonably" spanking their children and would place decisions about making kids wash dishes or go to church under the purview of an "18-member international panel." He even wrote a novel with an anti-homeschooling villain named after Hillary Clinton, who upends society by signing the CRC.

But as the last few months — and even the last few days — have made clear, parents' rights is a fringe issue no more. This Monday, former Republican senator David Perdue, now running for governor in Georgia, unveiled a new "Parents' Bill of Rights" that would require schools to make teaching materials and other information about educators and school funding available to parents. Perdue's proposal echoed a federal bill, the Parents' Bill of Rights Act, introduced last November by Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., as well as numerous bills recently passed or proposed in states including Florida, Indiana, Iowa and Missouri, and, as of last week, Pennsylvania

In a Daily Caller op-ed promoting a national Parents' Bill of Rights — maybe Hawley's, maybe his own — House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy called for all schools that receive federal funding to post a list of any reading materials available to students, vowing that "the Republican Party will be the Party of Parents and Education." 

RELATED: Theocrats are coming for the school board — but parents are starting to fight back

Besides the slew of bills-of-rights, there's the Oklahoma bill that would empower parents to force public school libraries to pull books they object to, on pain of $10,000-per-day fines (payable to the complaining parent), and would blacklist recalcitrant librarians. There's the Indiana bill banning the teaching of "divisive concepts," which also gives parents and community members more say over curriculum than educators, and requires schools to obtain parental permission before offering students mental health counseling. (This bill drew national attention for the contention, from one of its supporting legislators, that teachers should be impartial when teaching about Nazism.) And back in Florida, which helped spark the new parental rights movement by passing its own Parents' Bill of Rights last summer, Gov. Ron DeSantis is introducing "the Stop W.O.K.E. (Wrongs Against Our Kids and Employees) Act," which would allow parents to sue school districts if they believe their child is being taught critical race theory or, perhaps, other inappropriate content "smuggled" into class lessons. 

Much of this activity can be traced back to the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank whose senior fellow Christopher Rufo helped turn critical race theory into one of the preeminent educational debates in 2021 (and who was present onstage when DeSantis announced his "Stop W.O.K.E. Act" last month). In early January, Rufo tweeted that his "goal this year is for 10+ state legislatures to pass curriculum transparency bills, requiring public schools to make all teaching materials easily available to parents via internet. It's time to get the political predators out of the shadows — and return power to families." 

To that end, Rufo's colleagues have drafted model state legislation requiring schools to make public all teaching and teacher-training materials — with optional language allowing politicians to make clear that they mostly care about materials related to "matters of nondiscrimination, diversity, equity, inclusion, race, ethnicity, sex, gender, or bias."

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

In terms of the larger political landscape, all of this relates back to Republicans' new driving focus on parental rights — already evident by early 2021, when Rufo's advocacy began netting a nationwide trend of vicious school board confrontations, but cemented in early November, when Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin rode a wave of fury over perceived restrictions to parental input on education to victory in a state governed by Democrats since 2009.

As education reporter Jennifer Berkshire, co-author of the 2020 book "A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: The Dismantling of Public Education and the Future of School," wrote this December, "In Youngkin's upset win, the GOP saw its path to forever rule. And it was lined with angry parents." It was a recapitulation, Berkshire observed, of parents' rights campaigns past, like paleoconservative Pat Buchanan's failed 1996 presidential campaign, that were clearly rooted religious right activism. 

But that history is repeating itself too. While the conservative parental rights' advocacy that's gained the most attention to date relates to teaching about U.S. racial history or pandemic public health measures, it's also animating a new set of right-wing attacks on LGBTQ issues. The author of the Oklahoma book-banning bill openly acknowledges that he has only focused on books that address sexual orientation or gender identity, comparing titles like "Trans Teen Survival Guide" to "Fifty Shades of Grey." And some Christian right groups seem to be tying their causes to the rising star of parental rights.

In November, the Christian right legal advocacy organization Alliance Defending Freedom — helmed, since 2017, by Michael Farris — helped two sets of Wisconsin parents file a lawsuit against their school district over its policy on recognizing trans students. In one case, the parents withdrew their 12-year-old child from the district after the school said it couldn't adhere to their request to refer to the child by a female name and pronouns, which ADF saw as a violation of their "foundational right" to raise their child as they see fit. 

The case is one of three lawsuits ADF is highlighting as part of its recently-launched Center for Parental Rights, which its website describes as "working to achieve a Generational Win" on parental power in education and beyond. Another of the center's cases, filed in December, concerns a Virginia district's curriculum around race. The third, inexplicably, involves no parents but a Loudoun County, Virginia, gym teacher who was placed on administrative leave after publicly announcing that he wouldn't use students' preferred pronouns. 

In a statement, ADF vice president of communications Mike Friel said, "Our legal advocacy in this area has increased in recent years in response to a growing number of situations like those in Wisconsin, where a school district in Madison implemented a policy that directs staff to treat students as the opposite sex at school — including using a different name and/or pronouns, allowing the student to use locker rooms and restrooms based on the child's declaration, and even allowing males to room with girls and vice versa — all without the parents' knowledge or consent. In some cases, the policy even instructs staff to mislead parents by using different names and pronouns when addressing students in the presence of their parents." 

It's not just ADF. The Parental Rights Foundation — the educational arm of the Farris-founded ParentalRights.org — also recently tied anti-trans advocacy to parental rights in an August podcast featuring Emilie Kao, at the time director of the Heritage Foundation's Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society. On the show, Kao, who has since joined ADF to focus on critical race theory and "gender ideology," said that both of those issues — "think of them as two branches of the same tree," with "roots in Cultural Marxism" — posed dangerous threats to parental rights. 

Kao claimed that schools "socially transition a child" against their parents' wishes, "giving them a different name, different pronouns, dressing them in different [clothes]. ... There's a lot of friction between parents and kids in a family dynamic when transgender ideology seduces children. But then when it gets to the school context, or the medical context, we really see that teachers, administrators and medical professionals are treating parents as the enemy if they won't affirm the idea that a child can change sex."

But the recent wave of conservative school board protests, Kao said, had brought unprecedented attention to the threat schools pose to parental rights. "I think it is a real moment in history. …Parents are having their eyes opened across the country and we're just seeing tremendous activism from parents that they can't allow their children to be indoctrinated into these ideas." 

There's considerable cherry-picking on these issues among right-wing activists, observes Gabriel Arkles, senior counsel at the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund. "They are super-selective when they want to support parental rights," he said. "They certainly do not want to support the rights of parents that support trans kids, only the rights of parents that don't want their trans kids to exist."

"Parents don't have the right to control the policies of public schools, and if they did it would be chaos," Arkles continued. "On any number of topics, from what to teach to disciplinary rules, in a whole bunch of different areas, what one set of parents thinks is best for their kids is different than what other parents would see the school do."

That, said Diane Redleaf, founder of the Family Defense Center, is an indication of how elastic the rhetoric of parental rights can be. "'Parents' rights' as a political slogan is very different than the question of parents' legal rights," said Redleaf, who's spent most of her career working with families who have become entangled in an often overzealous child welfare system. 

"As a political slogan, I think it's being used like a community claim," she said, "not an individualized claim about my specific rights to my child." Redleaf is actually the founder of  a left-right child welfare reform coalition that has partnered with conservative groups like the Parental Rights Foundation. "What seems to be going on now," she said, "fits more with this Republican agenda of tearing down government institutions as a political matter, in the name of parental rights."  

But "parental rights" must be understood as part of a political agenda, said Jeremy Young, the interim executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, a reform advocacy group founded by formerly-homeschooled children, which is to say one of the populations most intimately familiar with the results of Michael Farris' advocacy. This new focus on parents' rights, Young suggested, represents the mainstreaming of positions that until recently were considered extreme: wrapping "these grab bags of everything conservatives are afraid of happening in the public schools" in demands for near-total parental authority.

"The amazing thing is, this is still being driven by the Farris network," Young said, noting that ParentalRights.org's state chapter in Florida was instrumental in getting that state's Parental Bill of Rights passed — which, in assuring the "fundamental rights of a parent to direct the upbringing, education, health care, and mental health of a minor child," was a near copy of Farris's original proposed amendment language. "Then, because of DeSantis and his star power, all of a sudden it's a national, popular issue for congressional leaders. … Basically, it's left the space of HSLDA and ADF, and moved into mainstream conservatism, because it's suddenly become electorally successful." 

"There's this fundamental assertion from homeschooling parents that no one is better equipped to shape their child's education. No one knows them better. No one knows their needs better," said Robert Kunzman, an education professor at Indiana University and author of the 2009 book "Write These Laws on Your Children: Inside the World of Conservative Christian Homeschooling." "And if there's one thing that homeschoolers will go to the mat on, almost in unison, it's that stance. So it doesn't surprise me that Republicans have found this to be a potent anti-institutional, anti-expertise angle to take, particularly given the sense of aggrieved minority status that some are trying to inculcate."

But if today's Republican Party is banking on the power of a new parents' rights coalition that draws together those variously aggrieved about teaching on race, accommodation of LGBTQ students, public health mandates and more, Kunzman warned that such coalitions were also prone to fracturing. In Virginia, the local chapter of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s anti-vaccination group, Children's Health Defense, has already begun petitioning the newly-inaugurated Gov. Youngkin to not just ban vaccine mandates for children, but to forbid any state health officials from describing COVID-19 vaccines as "safe." 

"The one thing that strikes me about parental rights is that when they're fighting against some amorphous, evil group on the left, it's one thing. But all the parents who want 'parental rights' don't agree either," said Kunzman. "It's almost inevitable that the splintering will happen when you get down to brass tacks about what good parenting really looks like." Or which teachers' freedom of conscience matters. Or which books to ban. 

Read more on Republicans' assault on education:

By Kathryn Joyce

Kathryn Joyce was an investigative reporter at Salon, and the author of two books: "The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption" and "Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement."

MORE FROM Kathryn Joyce

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2022 Midterms Christian Right Education Parental Rights Reporting Republicans