Three Republican Warwick school board members say they recently met with the chief counsel for Independence Law Center, a Harrisburg-based legal advocacy group that has helped school districts restrict access to library books and adopt policies to expand Christian rights while often targeting transgender students.
The school board members say they requested the meeting with the attorney, Randall Wenger, to learn more about the center’s work with school boards as well as for general perspective from a prominent Republican who lives in the district. But some parents are alarmed by the prospect of the board teaming up with a religious rights law firm to shape public school policy.
At a school board meeting Tuesday, member Jim Koelsch acknowledged meeting with Wenger and defended the law center. He made the statement after saying he wanted to respond to recent public comments and questions about the firm.
“So yes, I did have a meeting with the Independence Law Center, and no, the Independence Law Center is not a hate group,” Koelsch said. “The ILC is a group of very good lawyers doing some great work for the communities in Pennsylvania.”
Koelsch’s acknowledgment came one month after the Bucks County Courier Times reported he met with Wenger in late January. According to the report, Koelsch thanked Wenger afterward, writing “your insights will be very helpful navigating the coming weeks/months on the board.”
The 3,850-student district has seen raucous board meetings in recent months, with members of two small but outspoken groups — Moms for Liberty and Warwick Parents for Change — dominating public comments periods with a shifting list of grievances. Among other things, district residents have railed against “Marxism” and “woke curriculum” and attempted to recruit local church leaders “to represent biblical truth and the Lordship of Jesus Christ” in schools.
If other school districts are any indicator, this is fertile ground for the Independence Law Center. The firm is part of the Pennsylvania Family Institute, which has come under scrutiny for its ties to the Family Research Council, a Virginia-based evangelical activist group that the Southern Poverty Law Center labels an “anti-LGBTQ hate group.”
Wenger did not respond to requests for comment for this story. But in a recent interview with LNP | Lancaster Online, he distanced himself from the Family Research Council. Still, Wenger has appeared several times on the council’s online talk show, and Pennsylvania Family Institute, where Wenger serves as chief operating officer, is featured on the Family Research Council’s website as a state-level “family policy council.”
While board members have criticized the Southern Poverty Law Center’s assessment, some residents in the district say the thing that’s most concerning about Independence Law Center is the work it has done at other schools in Pennsylvania.
Immediately after Koelsch spoke at the meeting, two other board members, Dan Woolley and Scott Landis, said they also have met with Wenger.
Woolley said “as a school board director I meet with various groups and individuals to obtain information that will help me make good decisions that will benefit our students and our district.”
Landis, an attorney, noted that Wenger lives in Warwick School District, and they are both members of a local bar association for lawyers.
Landis criticized the Southern Poverty Law Center, citing two lawsuits and several opinion pieces denouncing the group’s work in recent years.
“There are a number of reasons why I think we need to be skeptical of any notion that the SPLC should be the final authority on what constitutes a hate group,” Landis said.
The SPLC is a nonprofit legal advocacy group that formed in 1971 and rose to prominence for filing lawsuits against the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups. It has also fought against discrimination due to sexual orientation and other violations of civil rights.
Why they met
Speaking with LNP | Lancaster Online Thursday, Koelsch said he requested the breakfast meeting with Wenger to learn how other school districts have worked with Independence Law Center.
“At some point in the future, if there’s ever a need for special counsel or anything like that, I guess I could reach out to them, but I don’t see any need for anything like that now,” Koelsch said.
Koelsch said he sees Independence Law Center as a conservative group that has experience providing “solid legal advice.” He emphasized that the group played no role in developing a new library book policy proposal the board plans to introduce in the near future.
Koelsch said he also meets with religious leaders, businesspeople and members of other school districts but declined to name any person or group in particular.
Woolley on Friday said he was also at that breakfast meeting with Wenger and other people he declined to name. He said he couldn’t remember who invited him to the meeting. He joined because he wanted to know in general what Independence Law Center does.
“Every school board director should be doing their own research and gathering information for the good of the district,” Woolley said. When asked whether he’s met with any groups on the other end of the political spectrum, he said he hasn’t, but he’s not opposed to it.
Landis, Speaking with LNP | Lancaster Online Thursday, said he met with Wenger “and a few other folks,” but declined to name the others. He said they weren’t working on any particular policy issues, but he was open to Wenger’s guidance.
“I didn’t meet with Randall because he was a member of a particular group,” Landis said. “I met with him because of his experience in representing some of these school districts.”
Like Koelsch and Woolley, Landis said he meets with many people who represent different perspectives. He declined to say whether he’s met with LGBTQ+ rights groups and when asked said he “would meet with” Jewish or Muslim faith groups.
“Who I speak to is nobody’s business, unless it becomes part of what the district is doing,” Landis said. “This isn’t district business. Just because I talk to somebody doesn’t make it district business.”
Why the group is controversial
Independence Law Center played a key role in helping Central Bucks School District in Bucks County draft school library policy regulations that prohibit “sexualized content,” said Anusha Viswanathan, a parent in the district who regularly attends meetings.
Those regulations have led to dozens of “challenges” by parents and other school district residents that could ultimately lead to the removal of many books that represent LGBTQ+ people, Viswanathan said.
It used to be that a library committee would consider a book’s overall “literary merit,” Viswanathan said. But with the current rules the law center helped draft, that’s no longer a factor.
Viswanathan said the district has long had “opt out” policies for parents who don’t want their child to read a book. “But this is a different beast. This is a way in which all students are unable to access a book if one taxpayer in the district decides to challenge a book.”
Much as it has been in Warwick School District, the parental rights group Moms for Liberty has been an outspoken voice at Central Bucks, Viswanathan said. Parents have pushed for strict new policies that have created a “culture of fear” among teachers.
Viswanathan said it’s hard to know the extent of Independence Law Center’s influence in the district.
“Parents are right to be worried about it,” Viswanathan said. “When ILC gets involved in your school board, the intent of their interference will always be to narrow the scope of inclusiveness, education, everything. It is always a narrowing. It is never intended to be otherwise.”
In addition to its work with Central Bucks, the law firm has a long history of working with school boards, including some in Lancaster County.
In 2021, the Hempfield school board enlisted the firm to help develop a policy on athletic participation among transgender students, a move that angered LGBTQ advocates. Several board members opposed the move.
The same year, the firm helped two students sue Mechanicsburg Area High School after it didn’t allow them to hand out Bibles during lunch.
In 2017, Wenger represented four students from Boyertown Area Senior High School in Berks and Montgomery counties, seeking to prevent transgender students from using school bathrooms matching their gender identity. Wenger’s team tried and failed to take the case to the Supreme Court.
The firm has had some success elevating cases to the Supreme Court. The high court heard oral arguments Tuesday in the case of law center client Gerald Groff, a former postal worker from Providence Township who refused to work on Sundays, saying it was against his religious beliefs. The law firm also helped win the landmark Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case, which allowed businesses to exclude contraceptives from their employees’ health care plans.
In an email to the board obtained by LNP | LancasterOnline, Warwick Area Republican Committee Vice Chair Justin Kratzer thanked Koelsch, Woolley and Landis for defending the law firm from criticism “some in our community have levied toward board and community members.”
“The debate of the merits and exchange of ideas should be free from ad hominem attacks and straw man fallacies,” Kratzer wrote, referring to two concepts taught in critical thinking classes. “Hopefully refuting these attacks and false narratives will reduce or eliminate them.“
Woolley and Landis are among the slate of candidates endorsed by the Warwick Area Republican Committee in next month’s primary. Wenger was a featured speaker at the Republican committee’s meeting earlier this year.
For Warwick parent Melissa Armer, some of the same people who support those groups want to prohibit teachers from even acknowledging her nonbinary child’s existence.
“These are groups of people who think that the way your child is simply existing is sinful,” Armer said. “There should be a separation of church and state. Public schools are not religious entities.”
Mary-Lynn Lavender is a conservative Republican and former Warwick Area Republican Committee chair. She understands parent concerns about wanting to control whether students have access to controversial books, such as Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer” and “All American Boys” by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. However, she said public schools need to be inclusive.
“And the whole world has got people that are different than one another, and I don’t think a child should be singled out or separated because they are different,” Lavender said. “We just need to respect one another and not tear down each other.”
Warwick Superintendent April Hershey said the administration is not working with the law firm.
Hershey said the public deserves to be informed about what school board members are doing, especially with an upcoming primary where seven board seats are open. Woolley and Landis are two of 13 Republican primary candidates running for five four-year seats on the November ballot.
“All of our school board members, in their hearts, believe they’re doing what is best for our school district,” Hershey said. “It’s important for us to stay focused on providing the best education for every child, and making sure they feel loved, valued and respected, and I think some of what’s happening is taking away from our ability to really focus on that.”
This reporter’s work is funded by the Lancaster County Local Journalism Fund. For more information, or to make a contribution, please visit lanc.news/supportlocaljournalism.
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