Many in Philly say no to hosting “anti-government extremists”

Why are the Philly Marriott and Museum of the American Revolution opening their doors to Moms for Liberty?

6 minute read
The boxy, white-trimmed brick exterior and entry plaza at the museum on a sunny summer day.
The Museum of the American Revolution, located in Old City, will host a welcome event for Moms for Liberty members on June 29. (Photo courtesy of MoAR.)

Moms for Liberty is convening in Philly later this month for a national summit based at Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, with a welcome event on Thursday, June 29, at the Museum of the American Revolution (MoAR). With community members urging them not to host the group, Marriott and MoAR leaders claim that they can’t discriminate based on “ideology” or “beliefs”—but that’s just a euphemism for bigotry that’s bringing in some business.

Who is Moms for Liberty?

As the Inquirer reported early in June, Moms for Liberty is a “parents’ rights” group that denies partisanship but has strong far-right ties (its Philly summit will feature Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis). It was founded in Florida in 2021 and initially focused on dismantling pandemic public-health measures like masking in schools, but also opposes LGBTQ+ rights, and has emerged as a prominent player in a national surge of book bans that purport to remove pornographic material from schools, but in reality target any material dealing with systemic racism, sexuality, or LGBTQ+ perspectives.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) recently designated Moms for Liberty as an anti-government extremist group, detailing threats of violence by its supporters, its explicit mission to scuttle the Department of Education (it refers to teachers’ union members as “terrorists”), attempts to ban books about Ruby Bridges and Martin Luther King Jr., and public ties to the white nationalist Proud Boys, among many other concerns.

According to reporting by Philadelphia Gay News (PGN) earlier this year, Moms for Liberty chapters have expanded rapidly in Pennsylvania, and “thanks to efforts by [Moms for Liberty] and its Republican allies, Pennsylvania ranks third in the nation in the number of school library book bans” (behind Texas and Florida).

Objections in Philly

Unsurprisingly, many in the community aren’t happy about the welcome Moms for Liberty is getting in Philly. Local groups like Defense of Democracy, Galaei, and Act Up Philadelphia have already staged protests, and are gearing up for more. (Here’s a petition to stop MoAR from hosting what organizers call “a hate group.”) PGN detailed statements between concerned Democratic Pennsylvania state legislators representing the Philly area, and Ken Reed, the hotel’s general manager.

In response to the legislators’ concerns about the Philly Marriott hosting an organization with “a history of spreading misinformation and advocating for discriminatory policies that undermine the values of inclusivity, diversity, and respect for all individuals,” Reed emphasized that the hotel can’t legally discriminate against guests on the basis of “certain traits or beliefs,” and must “open our doors to everyone” regardless of their views, as long as no laws are broken. (In July 2022, Marriott International hosted the group for its inaugural summit in Tampa.)

Statements from MoAR are similar, as reported in a June 7 Inquirer story about employees who are passionately urging museum leadership to cancel the Moms for Liberty booking. “Because fostering understanding within a democratic society is so central to our mission, rejecting visitors on the basis of ideology would be antithetical to our purpose,” MoAR claims. I assume Moms for Liberty members are at liberty to purchase tickets to visit the museum along with everyone else, but leaders should not implicitly equate this to hosting the group’s “Welcome to Philadelphia” party.

A matter of opinion?

But the Moms for Liberty “ideology” is currently driving a national wave of hateful state laws restricting trans people’s participation in public life, and their access to lifesaving medical care. (Journalist Erin Reed’s Erin in the Morning newsletter is an excellent way to stay informed on anti-trans legislation, as well as victories for trans rights.) This is no anodyne matter of opposing views or differing politics. Affected staffers, legislators, and LGBTQ+ advocates are right to voice their concerns.

Snapshot of a woman with a stroller holding a sign that says “trans kids belong” on a sunny day during Philly Pride festival
2023 Philly Pride-goers support trans kids. (Photo by Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer.)

In an essential recent Columbia Journalism Review guide to generating and understanding news coverage about transgender people, Graph Massara asks key questions, including “would this sound bad if it were written about some other group?”

It’s not just a question for journalists or subscribers. Institutions opening their doors to anti-LGBTQ+ activists should adapt it: “Would we reject this organization’s dollars if its activities were targeting some other group?”

Massara goes on, “if substituting another marginalized group—say, ‘Black’ or ‘Chinese’ or ‘deaf’—makes the story sound off, you might want to rethink the premise.”

Disregarding all children

If the Moms for Liberty mission was to exclude, discomfit, and harm disabled children, say by making sure kids couldn’t be open about their disability, get their needs met, see themselves represented in the curriculum and library, use the bathroom, or simply be safe at school, would we shrug and say, well, some might disagree, but hating disabled people is a valid ideology? Especially as someone with a disability, I strongly object.

But wait. Moms for Liberty already did all that to disabled children, every time they attacked policies that prevent the spread of Covid-19 in schools. Then they quickly targeted queer and trans youth, too. (It’s worth noting here a Moms for Liberty activist’s ignorant, ableist claims that both disabled children and LGBTQ+ children should be segregated from their peers.)

Call it what it is

Moms for Liberty and groups like it are not part of some neutral panoply of US politics. They believe that certain groups of people lack basic human and constitutional rights, and they are hounding legislatures and school districts to strip those rights away—the right to medical care, the right to use the bathroom, the right to learn, the right to self-expression. This is not acceptable in a humane public sphere. This is not politics. It’s bigotry.

4 children, seen from behind, study an exhibit about a model ship in a museum display.
MoAR is an important educational institution serving all its young visitors. (Photo courtesy of MoAR.)

As Act Up member Jazmyn Henderson told NBC10 last week, “Everybody is framing this Moms for Liberty thing like this is a debate in ideologies … but my transness is not an ideology.”

“They can’t say it’s just business. Indifference is not applicable here,” Jason Villemez writes in his June 7 PGN editorial on why companies should say no to Moms for Liberty. Act Up is planning another protest outside MoAR on Friday, June 16, from 5-7:30pm, when the museum will host the premiere of a new WHYY film about the Fortens of Philadelphia, which I’m scheduled to attend. (I wonder if Moms for Liberty members will find MoAR’s current exhibition on this historic Black family as agitating as they find books on Black history.)

Let’s call the Moms for Liberty “ideology” what it is. Non-discrimination policies shouldn’t justify helping the bigots oppress more people (and yes, as Villemez points out, providing a venue is helping them). Non-discrimination policies should be keeping the bigots out of any Philadelphia venue that wants to support the LGBTQ+ community at this critical time.

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