'Parents' rights' groups with ties to Ottawa Impact labeled extremist in new report

OTTAWA COUNTY — The Southern Poverty Law Center is, for the first time, labeling a “parents' rights” group that the Allendale Public Schools Board nearly associated itself with as extremist.

The Missouri-headquartered Moms for America and 11 other right-wing “parents' rights” groups received the "extremist" designation in the SPLC's annual report released Tuesday, June 6.

Moms for America and the other organizations are being designated as “anti-government extremist groups,” based on longstanding criteria, SPLC Intelligence Project Director Susan Corke told USA TODAY. Corke said the grassroots conservative groups are part of a new front in the battle against inclusivity in schools, though they are drawing from ideas rooted in age-old white supremacy.

“[The movement] is primarily aimed at not wanting to include our hard history, topics of racism, and a very strong push against teaching anything having to do with LGBTQ topics in schools,” Corke said. ”We saw this as a very deliberate strategy to go to the local level.”

The 12 new groups brought the total number of active extremist groups to 1,225 nationwide. Of those, the SPLC designates 702 as anti-government groups and 523 as hate groups. That’s almost unchanged from 2021, when the SPLC counted 1,221 extremist groups.

The SPLC is one of the most widely recognized research organizations tracking hate and extremism in the United States. Being added to its watchlist means almost certain notoriety. Over the years, the center has brought new focus to self-described militias, anti-immigrant groups and outright hate groups. The SPLC has also sued hate groups and individual extremists in the civil courts, often with great success.

But the SPLC has also been criticized for designating as extremist some groups that argue they simply take a political position, and has defended itself in lawsuits, including from immigration policy groups it has designated as anti-immigrant hate groups. (The organization is currently fighting a lawsuit from Gavin McInnes, who founded the Proud Boys and who has argued the SPLC’s hate group designation harmed his career.)

The report has other findings, including that the so-called “militia movement” declined significantly last year, that antisemitism continues to be a major force animating the extreme far-right and that alternative tech sites aren’t as niche as perhaps might be expected.

Allendale Public Schools
Allendale Public Schools

Moms for America

Moms for America made headlines in Ottawa County earlier this year after Allendale Public Schools nearly severed its affiliation with the Michigan Association of School Boards — to which most Michigan school districts belong — in favor of joining the National School Boards Leadership Council, sponsored by the parental rights group.

"We acknowledge the blessings of liberty can only be secured by a people who recognize their inherent rights have been endowed by their creator, and not granted by men. Furthermore, these rights can only be upheld by a moral and virtuous people who cherish liberty above comfort and security," reads the Moms for America website.

The Allendale Board of Education took some board members and parents by surprise when its new Ottawa Impact-linked majority fired its longtime law firm in January in favor of a group personally tied to Ottawa Impact's founder, Joe Moss.

Ottawa Impact is itself considered an extremist group by many Ottawa County residents, although some feel the organization is reflecting values long lost.

More: ‘Your integrity is very weak’: Allendale school board spars over law firm switch

More: 'Essentially we were lied to': Allendale School Board member demands recision of law firm vote

Moss, now the chair of the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners, and self-described "parental rights advocate" Sylvia Rhodea, now the vice chair, created the far-right fundamentalist group after clashes with the county and its COVID-19 mitigation mandates in 2020 and 2021. Both personally attended the Allendale Public Schools board meeting Jan. 9.

The switch in law firms — which mirrored similar actions championed by Moss and Rhodea on the county board six days earlier — was approved 4-3, but not before dissenting voters expressed their disapproval for the move. The OI board members also wanted the district to exit the Michigan Association of School Boards, a voluntary, nonprofit association of local and intermediate boards of education, in favor of the NSBLC, sponsored by Moms for America.

Non-OI board members later accused OI board members of lying and concealing relevant information after The Sentinel reported the new OI members, along with one incumbent board member, methodically arranged for the legal firm change nearly six weeks before the elects were sworn into office — consulting with Rhodea and Moss on the decisions.

More: Newly obtained texts show Ottawa Impact officials orchestrated law firm change before taking office

More: Allendale Schools walks back plan to join National School Board Leadership Council

OI-backed board member Liz Ramey, who put forward the vote to exit MASB in favor of the NSBLC on Jan. 9, later apologized to the community on Feb. 15 for rushing the move.

“I understand there’s definitely some things that were pretty rushed and not necessarily intended to be rushed,” she said. “It was intended to be part of the organizational meeting. I also do appreciate the vote of the board to postpone things, because there were certainly things that came to light that were not known prior to."

Those things included dozens of parents making public comments at the board's meetings and work sessions about NSBLC's stance that special education students are a drain on public education resources and should be separated from the general student population.

At that February meeting, the board opted to walk back the intention to join the NSBLC and ultimately renewed its membership with MASB in April.

The SPLC study concludes Moms for America is part of a broader anti-government movement focused on local politics that sprung up during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Founded in Dayton, Ohio, Moms for America is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit founded in 2004 dedicated to "raising patriots and promoting liberty for the healing of America."

The group pitched itself as a national movement of mothers to "reclaim our culture for truth, family, freedom, and the constitution," according to its website.

Former 2022 Michigan gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon sits on the Moms for America advisory council.

Despite the national profile, these organizations spread conspiracy theories and operate on the myth that educators are engaged in “Marxist indoctrination” of the nation’s children by imbuing them with dangerous ideas about equality and sexuality, the SPLC said.

While the movement may be reasonably new, it's founded on the same traditional racist, misogynist and homophobic views that brought people out to protest the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and '60s, the SPLC argues.

“Over the past two years, reactionary anti-student inclusion groups have been popping up from coast to coast, claiming to battle for parents’ rights. Just like their predecessors, their rhetoric takes on marked anti-LGBTQ, racist and nationalist themes, excluding from their parental concern large demographic segments of American society,” the report states.

“These groups publicize their fight for alleged parents’ rights while simply attempting to maintain absolute authority on issues they oppose.”

The primary focus of these groups has been twofold: They have fought against curriculums that teach about America’s racist and violent history and have more recently taken aim at any educational efforts to teach children about LGBTQ issues. To attract attention and seek new followers, groups like Moms for America promote the false claim that left-wing teachers and educators are engaged in a conspiracy to “sexualize” or even “groom” the schoolchildren under their care.

It’s a narrative that's had significant success, the SPLC notes.

Moms for Liberty, a similar group that also made SPLC's list, claims to have “flipped” 17 school boards nationwide to parental-rights supportive majorities, the report states. “Almost immediately following elections, many of these boards began making sweeping changes at school board meetings, such as firing superintendents and making curriculum changes,” the researchers found.

“They have just been really successful in leveraging their relationships with school officials, and extremist groups, to put them kind of in a place where they can make sweeping changes for the majority of people, when they're actually in the minority,” said Maya Henson Carey, a research analyst at SPLC.

The SPLC’s standard criteria for determining if a group is anti-government is spelled out on its website:

“An anti-government group is an organization or collection of individuals that — based on its official statements or principles, the statements of its leaders, or its activities — believes the federal government is tyrannical and traffics in conspiracy theories about an illegitimate government of leftist elites seeking a ‘New World Order.’”

Ottawa Impact has appeared as a co-signatory on literature featuring Moms for Liberty Michigan Chapters voicing opposition to the state's COVID-19 mitigation measures.

Moss and Rhodea have also made statements referring to the state and federal government as tyrannical and that commonplace policies in business and education — including diversity, equity and inclusion as well as promoting acceptance of the LGBTQ community — are "Marxist ideologies" and "government overreach."

The SPLC report notes that, at Moms for Liberty’s first national conference, former U.S. Department of Education Secretary and Holland native Betsy DeVos said, “I personally think that the Department of Education should not exist,” a quote the group then used on its website.

Moms for America and Moms for Liberty join the ranks of the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters and the United Constitutional Patriots, a self-styled militia that “patrols” the U.S.-Mexico border.

  • The 12 "parents' rights" groups labeled by the SPLC as extremist groups include: Moms for Liberty; Moms for America; Army of Parents; Courage is a Habit; Education First Alliance; Education Veritas; No Left Turn in Education; Parents Against CRT (PACT); Parents Defending Education; Parents Rights in Education; Purple for Parents Indiana and Parents Involved in Education.

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Other findings

The comprehensive annual SPLC report includes a number of additional findings, including:

  • Extremist flyering and propaganda incidents continued to increase in 2022: The SPLC counted 155 incidents on campuses, 4,739 public propaganda incidents and 169 “banner drops” where groups hung hateful messages on banners in public spaces. Flyering incidents have increased 291 percent since 2018, the report found.

  • Hate at public events: As USA TODAY has reported, the SPLC found that hate groups have increasingly descended on public events, primarily targeting drag shows and school board meetings to protest against LGBTQ-inclusive programming.

  • The so-called “constitutional sheriffs” movement continues: In 2022, members of the groups, who believe that local sheriffs are the highest authority in the country and are not beholden to state or federal law enforcement, began interfering with elections, the SPLC said. “Members melded their extremist positions with their law enforcement authority to investigate rogue, conspiratorial allegations of fraud in the 2020 presidential election and brought doubt into the legitimacy of the 2022 midterm elections,” the report states. Ottawa County joined that movement May 24 after a nearly eight-hour board of commissioners meeting that saw a significant amount of opposition. However, because Ottawa Impact holds a slim majority of six seats on the 11-member board, the measure passed. Experts have previously told The Sentinel the resolution isn't legally binding, and merely a symbolic move that many counties — including Livingston County — have utilized in response to the Democratic-controlled Michigan House and Senate recently enacting gun-reform laws, which were signed into law by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, also a Democrat.

  • Antisemitism continues to motivate the extremist far-right: “In 2022, Jewish people and spaces were regularly harassed, assaulted, vandalized and threatened,” the report found.

 Contact executive editor Sarah Leach at sarah.leach@hollandsentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @SentinelLeach.

This article originally appeared on The Holland Sentinel: 'Parents' rights' groups with ties to Ottawa Impact labeled extremist in new report