Mar 13, 2024 - News

Florida's parental rights movement's power dwindles

Illustration of an unbalanced scale balanced on top of a pencil.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Florida's "parental rights" movement was dealt a blow this week when state education officials conceded that a law banning instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity does not bar classroom discussion of LGBTQ+ people, families or issues.

Why it matters: The parental rights movement began in the early days of the pandemic β€” arguing against mask mandates, then critical race theory β€” and has defined Florida politics since, but its influence shows signs of waning.

  • The policies it backed β€” including the law watered down this week, which critics call "Don't Say Gay" β€” thrust the state into the national spotlight for its hyper-conservative approach to education and were central to Gov. Ron DeSantis' failed presidential campaign.

Big picture: University of Central Florida political science professor Aubrey Jewett tells Axios there seems to be "enough evidence that the movement has peaked."

  • Lawmakers, including conservative Republicans, may be worried some policies advanced under the auspices of parental rights "might be so extreme as to hurt them," especially in an election year, he adds.
  • Groups like Moms for Liberty had early wins and "got a fairly large number of people riled up about a couple of issues," he says. But once you successfully tackle the core issues that drove people to participate, "it's hard to keep people mobilized."

The other side: Moms for Liberty's founders did not return Axios' calls for comment. But co-founder Tina Descovich told CNN in February she thinks it's "ridiculous" to say the organization's influence is waning.

Catch up quick: The majority of anti-LGTBQ legislation stalled in this year's legislative session that ended Friday, suggesting such issues may be losing steam despite historical support from conservatives and parents' rights groups.

  • GOP lawmakers had their own parental rights arguments turned against them by Meta and other tech companies pushing back against a social media ban for kids that was ultimately weakened.
  • Earlier this month, Republican leaders did not confirm Descovich to the state ethics committee because of her employment with Moms for Liberty, arguing it "could constitute lobbying in the Legislature," per the Miami Herald.
  • Moms for Liberty also faced backlash after former Florida GOP Chair Christian Ziegler was accused of sexual battery by a woman who said she'd had a sexual relationship with him and his wife, the group's co-founder Bridget Ziegler. (Christian Ziegler was cleared of all charges.)
  • In February, DeSantis, who made parental involvement in crafting curriculum a key part of his platform, said book challenges in the state had gone too far.

What they're saying: Brandon Wolf, national press secretary at the Human Rights Campaign, says the current moment in Florida is the "inevitable outcome" of an extremist push that used parents' rights as a "messaging tool" to roll back freedoms and civil liberties.

Yes, but: Wolf and others say it's too soon to fully dismiss the parental rights movement in Florida or its lasting impacts.

  • The harm certain policies and rhetoric have caused will "outlast these organizations and politicians like DeSantis," Wolf said, adding that "we have a lot of work ahead to heal damage that's been done."
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