Moms for Liberty: 

‘We Do Not Co-Parent With the Government’

Tiffany Justice and Tina Descovich, the ‘joyful warriors’ who founded the group, 

discuss Covid shutdowns, teachers unions, transgenderism and the SPLC’s smear.

By Tunku Varadarajan

Illustration: Barbara Kelley

Melbourne, Fla.

Tina Descovich found herself surrounded by “Muslim dads.” The scene was a school-board meeting late last year in Dearborn, Mich. Local parents were angry about sex-themed books at the school library, which they regarded as “pornography.”

After chatting with Ms. Descovich for a few minutes, a Dearborn dad realized she was a founder of Moms for Liberty, a nonprofit parents’ rights group that came into being on Jan. 1, 2021. He shook his head and told her she didn’t “seem like a racist at all.”

“That’s because I’m not,” she replied.

With its dogged focus on school reform, hostility to teachers unions and opposition to Covid shutdowns and mandates, the group is hated on the left and typecast as far-right—or worse—by much of the media. I speak with Ms. Descovich, a 49-year-old mother of five, at Moms for Liberty’s headquarters here, between Miami and Jacksonville. Seated with her is Tiffany Justice, 44, the group’s co-founder and a mother of four. The modest office has no external signage to identify its occupants. Both women have received such a deluge of threats—by email, voicemail and even handwritten letters—that there’s a deputy at the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office whose main job is to review each one. “Someone calling himself Satan writes to me every week,” Ms. Descovich says wryly. “He lives in Denver.”

A more influential antagonist is the Southern Poverty Law Center. The SPLC, founded in 1971, has a storied history of fighting the Ku Klux Klan via civil lawsuits and cooperation with law enforcement. The media uncritically describe it as a civil-rights group, even though in recent decades its has shifted its focus to smearing conservative organizations as hate groups.

In June it labeled Moms for Liberty as “extremist” and “antigovernment.” It stated in a report titled “The Year in Hate and Extremism 2022” that the organization’s “primary goals” are to “fuel right-wing hysteria and to make the world a less comfortable or safe place” for students who are “Black, LGBTQ or who come from LGBTQ families.”

Ms. Justice says that is a lie, and accuses the SPLC of having “put a target on the back of every American parent, every American mom.” She says the designation is “meant to be used as a weapon against us” and asks: “Are any government agencies using the designation as a way for them to do more surveillance on us, or to somehow try to curtail our actions as an organization?”

Moms for Liberty may sue. Ms. Justice says the group is “exploring every legal option” and has “retained the best plaintiff-side defamation firm in the United States to hold the SPLC accountable for their hateful targeting of our members.” U.S. law makes it difficult for plaintiffs to win defamation lawsuits, and judges have dismissed other cases against the SPLC. But in 2018 the group paid Maajid Nawaz more than $3 million to settle his claim that it defamed him by labeling him an “anti-Muslim extremist.”

The SPLC’s smear appears to have done damage. Moms for Liberty had planned an event last month at Milwaukee’s Italian Community Center. “After an inquiry from the Journal Sentinel,” wrote Rory Linnane, a reporter for that paper, “Bartolotta Restaurants, which books events for the center, said it would not be hosting any Moms for Liberty event.” The first words in Ms. Linnane’s article were “Moms for Liberty, a group designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an extremist antigovernment organization . . .”

In Davis, Calif., a librarian shut down a Moms for Liberty meeting on grounds that a speaker who objected to male athletes competing against women and girls violated a rule against “misgendering.” Again, local news coverage prominently cited the SPLC’s designation.

The mission of Moms for Liberty, Ms. Descovich says, is to “unify, educate and empower parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government.” She came up with the group’s name, while Ms. Justice wrote its catchiest slogan: “We do not co-parent with the government.”

They met in 2019, three years after each was elected to her local school board—Ms. Descovich here, in Brevard County, Ms. Justice immediately south, in Indian River County. Ms. Descovich had been a Republican, Ms. Justice a politically unaffiliated “floater,” but both were impelled by personal experience to get involved with school politics.

Ms. Descovich’s eureka moment came in 2014 when her son was in seventh grade. “I started seeing assignments coming home that were concerning,” she says. “He brought home an assignment that I have to this day. He got 100-plus on it, and the teacher had said, ‘Great job!’ When he handed it to me, he said, ‘I got an A.’ . . . It was a ‘wanted’ poster for Christopher Columbus, for ‘crimes against humanity.’ ”

She was so shocked that she spent “months buying every book I could find on Christopher Columbus, reading everything I could, trying to figure out what had changed since I’d studied history.”

Ms. Justice says that for her, “it wasn’t so much curriculum as the physical condition of my kids’ school.” Hallways would flood; roofs leaked; tiles would dislodge and fall onto classroom floors and desks—and rodents infested the place. “We were in a PTA meeting, and a rat ran up a half-wall.”

The school’s principal wouldn’t raise the issue with higher-ups. “She said she didn’t want problems with the district,” Ms. Justice says. “But it was really more about the fact that she didn’t want anyone paying too much attention to her school. Because we had a literacy rate for African-American students that was in the low 20th percentile, and the school still got an A from the grading system in the state.”

Ms. Descovich adds that her son got the highest possible grade on his end-of-class exam in seventh grade even though he missed half the answers. At that, the two moms dissolve in laughter.

“School districts do two things well,” Ms. Justice says: “They protect themselves and they celebrate themselves. And they find ways to celebrate themselves so that they can protect themselves.” The statistics may be “devastating”—almost half of Florida fourth-graders can’t read at grade level—but no one pays a price, and plausible remedies are foreclosed. “Thanks to union contracts,” Ms. Descovich says, “if you want to give bonuses to your teachers who are willing to serve in your poorest schools, you can’t do it.”

Why is their group called Moms for Liberty rather than something less neuralgic for the left—say, Moms for Education? “Because it’s about parental rights,” Ms. Justice swiftly answers. The group’s focus is “more than schooling. You have the fundamental right to direct the upbringing of your children.” That includes their medical care and “their moral and religious upbringing. And that’s a right that the government doesn’t give you and can’t take away.” Growing more impassioned, she says she’s “fighting for the survival of America, to protect the role of a mother, to protect the autonomy of a parent.”

Transgender ideology is a particular concern. The “first big attack” on parental rights, Ms. Descovich says, happened in 2019, “with the ‘procedural guides,’ which started appearing in districts all across Florida.” These guides excluded parents from all conversations about “pronouns, restrooms, locker rooms, overnight field trips.” Teachers got the green light “to lie to parents.” In 2022 the Florida Legislature turned the light red by enacting the Parents Bill of Rights.

When Covid hit, “this was a whole new thing,” Ms. Descovich says. “We see the districts taking more and more authority away from parents.” On March 13, 2020, the state ordered Florida schools to close for two weeks, and they remained so for the rest of the school year.

“We go to virtual,” Ms. Justice recounts. “There’s no accountability for teaching. There’s no accountability for learning. I don’t know how we graduated all these kids. It was Crazytown until Gov. DeSantis announced on June 6, 2020, that schools in Florida would reopen—period, end of story, full time.”

Yet the shutdown did end up bringing accountability. Watching their kids’ classes on Zoom, parents became far more aware of what their children were learning—“or not learning,” Ms. Justice says. Ms. Descovich heard “stories after stories of parents’ jaws dropping at the lessons being taught and streamed into their own homes. We like to say that when we served on school boards, we saw behind the education curtain. And then 2020 happened, and all of America saw behind the curtain.”

Moms for Liberty began as a Florida group, then “exploded,” in Ms. Justice’s telling. It has 300 county chapters in 46 states and “120,000 active on-the-ground moms.” There are now 275 Moms for Liberty-endorsed school-board members nationwide.

Expansion has its pitfalls, especially for a decentralized grass-roots group like Moms for Liberty. In June an Indiana chapter apologized for publishing in its newsletter a quote attributed to Adolf Hitler: “He alone, who OWNS the youth, GAINS the future.”

“First of all,” Ms. Justice says, removing her glasses and rolling her eyes emphatically, “we’re not pro-Hitler.” Ms. Descovich repeats the point “for the record,” before continuing: “We knew we were going to be growing by chapters and that the chapters were going to have autonomy. And that every now and then an average mom, who’s never been political, is going to step in it.”

It puzzles both women that parental rights excite fevered opposition. “Why do they hate us? That’s a good question,” Ms. Descovich says. Ms. Justice responds: “Because we’re upsetting the balance of power.”

Moms for Liberty takes on “human issues,” Ms. Descovich says, “not partisan ones. Children learning how to read in school, that’s a human issue. Parental rights—how is that partisan?” But if “the people in power, the educational establishment, can keep us divided against each other based on race or religion or gender, then we’re easily controlled, right?”

Explaining why this issue is so potent, Ms. Descovich says, “Once a parent loses the right to direct the upbringing of their child, we’ve lost everything. You’ve lost your family. You’ve lost your community. You have lost the basic unit of society.” Ms. Justice adds: “The reading proficiency rates we have in America right now pose the greatest national-security threat of anything for the future of this country. If you have a nation of children and adults who cannot read, where does that leave America?” She promises that Moms for Liberty are “going to fight like hell.”

As Ms. Justice furrows her brow at the prospect of battle, Ms. Descovich leaps in to point out that Moms for Liberty call themselves “joyful warriors”: “Yes, we’re going to fight, but with a smile on our face. We’re going to fight like heck, of course—Tiffany says ‘hell,’ I say ‘heck’—but we’re going to do it with a smile on our face, because our children are watching us do this.”

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