Friday, April 19, 2024

PA: Far Right Law Group Comes To Meadville

Crawford Central School District has joined the ranks of school districts in Pennsylvania considering anti-LGBTQ policies.

And while their name didn't come up, the conservative christianist Independence Law Center fingerprints were all over the work.

The Independence Law Center

The ILC is the law arm of the Pennsylvania Family Institute. PFI was founded in 1989 as a “key strategic voice for the family, and for the Judeo-Christian principles needed for a free and prosperous society.” Their stated mission is to “strengthen families by restoring to public life the traditional, foundational principles and values essential for the well-being of society.” As with many christianist political groups, they’ve learned to couch their goals in more secular language, but their true nature often peeks through.

Our goal is for Pennsylvania to be a place where God is honored, religious freedom flourishes, families thrive, and life is cherished.

Of course, they only have one particular God in mind.

The founder, president, and CEO of PFI is Michael Geer. Geer started out as a journalist, including almost a decade as senior news producer at WPXI in Pittsburgh. Geer is a regular voice in conservative meetings, church gatherings, and media coverage. He’s opposed to legalization of marijuana, women’s health care options, non-traditional marriage, and freedom to read for students.
PFI has a variety of related organizations in addition to ILC. The Pennsylvania Family Council, which lobbies for the “pro-family goals.” City on the Hill, an annual conference for high school students to “teach worldview principles and develop leadership skills” including topics such as The Case for Life, Christians in the Public Square and Why Religious Freedom Matters. The Church Ambassador Network, aimed at connecting pastors with their local legislators. They even run the Family Choice Scholarships, one of the many organizations that manages and brokers Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) voucher monies.

PFI handles around $3 million a year, with only a handful of paid employees. Those include Jeremy Samek and Randall Wenger, the lawyers heading up ILC. 

In 2006, PFI set up the Independence law Center to do pro bono work “that litigates and advocates on behalf of the sanctity of life, marriage and family and religious liberty.” Wenger has been the chief counsel since the center’s inception. He’s a ninth-generation Lancaster County Mennonite who decided early on that he wanted to be a religious liberty lawyer.

Samek, who joined in 2015, is senior counsel. Samek has been a school board member (Franklin Regional), spent eight years as an attorney with Eckert Seamans in Pittsburgh, and before that was a staff sergeant in the USAF reserve. His law degree is from Pitt; his undergraduate work was done at Liberty University.

ILC has been involved in some high profile religion cases. They’ve been in court arguing against abortion, including cases in which they argued both for and against parental consent for a minor’s abortion. Wenger took a case to the Supreme Court ( Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp v. Burwell) that was folded in with the more famous Hobby Lobby case that determined that employers could refuse to provide any health care coverage options they disagreed with (in this case, birth control).

In the last decade or so, ILC has extended its crusade to public schools. In particular, they have developed a booming business in helping school boards craft right wing culture panic policies--pro bono.

The Central Bucks school board drew national attention, launching a batch of anti-LGBTQ, anti-reading policies. Conservative board members refused to tell non-right-wing members of the board exactly who was “helping” write those policies, it turned out that Samek had a hand in it

Multiple districts in the southeast corner of the state used ILC to help them craft similar policies, and when some board members at Penncrest School District (right next door to Crawford Central) decided they wanted to create some anti-LGBTQ policies, they reached out to Samek and the ILC

None of this was done in the open. We know as much as we know only because various news organizations have filed Right To Know requests to uncover the communication between conservative board members and ILC attorneys.

In fact, a RTK request by the York Dispatch (whose Meredith Willse has been all over this story) found that ILC not only created policy for the Red Lion Area School District, but actually wrote not just talking points, but a word for word speech for a board member to read.

So what does this have to do with Meadville?

Crawford Central board members considered a basic cut-and-paste of policies adopted by South Side Area School District (a district near Pittsburgh). The policies require students to participate in sports corresponding to their birth gender, restricts use of locker rooms and restrooms, and prohibits using anything other than the student's legal name without parental permission, while not requiring staff to honor that parental request. 

South Side Area School District passed these policies in February. They hired ILC and Jeremy Samek back in 2022. 

The policies are ILC policies. I've reached out to Mike Crowley, the reporter who covered the meeting for the Meadville Tribune, to ask how exactly those policies arrived before the board. He responded that the superintendent said some members had expressed an interest, but did not specify which ones. But if I were a CCSD taxpayer, I'd be asking if some of my board members have been talking to the ILC. 

Crowley quoted the district's actual legal counsel:
“I just want to urge some caution because I’ve reviewed these policies and I know that they say that they are Title IX compliant and they make some statements about Title IX and about protecting students,” said Rachael Downey Glasoe, referring to the federal statute prohibiting sex-based discrimination in federally funded educational programs, “but I have serious, serious concerns.”

But as with Penncrest, where one board member said, "I don't care what the law says," some CCSD board members have their focus elsewhere. Board member Ron Irwin argued that science says you just go by chromosomes and science "and not this, you know--Oh I identify as, at any given time, to change that." And Crowley captured this jaw-dropper:

“When we release these kids into the real world — they graduate — you can no longer pick and choose what you want to be and stuff like that,” Irwin said. “Reality is going to hit. So I think XX and XY chromosomes is the way to go moving forward.”
Fellow board member Ryan Pickering, a psychology professor at Allegheny College, politely pointed out that the science wasn't nearly as clear as Irwin suggested "and I don't know if we're ready to have that conversation scientifically."

Next week, the board will have some sort of conversation and we'll if they want to join ILC's stable of school district's. Glasoe seems to have a hint of at least part of what's going on:
“My read on this is South Side (Area) School District is looking for a fight in court and that is what will happen down there,” Glasoe said. “If we look to these as a model, I would say this school district is going to also get a fight — is going to get a big legal fight.”
Except I don't think it's the South Side district that's looking for the fight in court. ILC, on the other hand, specializes in finding fights that they can take to court in an attempt to push a conservative christianist agenda, to make their particular view of the Bible the law of the land. Let's hope that the board listens to Glasoe and not any other lawyers that they might be listening to through quiet back pro bono channels. 

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