The Independence Law Center Seeks to Impose its Biblical Worldview on Pennsylvania School Districts

The law firm has quietly helped districts draft policies for banning books, discriminating against LGBTQ students, and promoting reactionary Christian values.
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A school board will hire as legal counsel a law firm that specializes in the goals of that particular board. In Pennsylvania, if the board is interested in creating policies that will discriminate against particular students and staff, or maybe introducing regulations that institute censorship, they call the Independence Law Center

What is the Independence Law Center? Who is behind it? And how far is its reach in Pennsylvania? 

The Pennsylvania Family Institute

The Pennsylvania Family Institute 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.

Jenny Q A shutterstock 292116221 - Bucks County Beacon - The Independence Law Center Seeks to Impose its Biblical Worldview on Pennsylvania School Districts

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. 

READ: Christian Right Observer Weekly Launches to Unmask Authoritarian Threat ‘Wrapped in a Flag and Carrying a Cross’

Geer has created quite an organization to support his conservative biblical worldview. PFI has a variety of related organizations. 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 is a 501(c)(3) organization (some of its arms are not), and as such must file a Form 990 with the IRS. From the most recent form filed (2022), we can learn that the organization handles a little under $3 million each year. Over a quarter million goes to lobbying. 

There are three paid employees of the organization. Geer has been paid a bit more than $200K. The other two employees are Randall Wenger and Jeremy Samek, the attorneys who operate the PGI legal wing, the Independence Law Center.

The Independence Law Center

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 added one more senior counsel, Janice Martino-Gottshall, in 2021. She had worked for years in the PA Attorney General’s office. ILC has also hired retired judge Cheryl Allen.

The center has handled some high profile cases in the past; Wenger has been to the Supreme Court twice. A decade ago he took Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp v. Burwell to SCOTUS, where it was paired with the more famous Hobby Lobby case that decided that employers’ free exercise of religion allowed them to refuse to provide insurance to cover types of health care with which they disagreed (in this case, birth control). 

READ: Pennsylvania Taxpayers Are Subsidizing Discrimination at Private and Religious Voucher Schools

More recently, Wenger and the ILC also helped defend evangelical postal worker Gerald Groff, who sued to have Sundays off for religious reasons. 

And they are plenty busy on the lower levels as well. 

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 (depending on which suited them). They are frequent filers of amici curiae briefs (a way for “interested parties” to chime in on a case before the court) including one in the case charging that one foster agency in Philadelphia was being discriminated against because they would not place children with same-sex couples. They also offered an amici brief for the somewhat bogus case of the praying football coach in Washington state.

ILC has also teamed up on occasion with Alliance Defending Freedom, the conservative Christianist advocacy group that previously employed, among others, current speaker of the House Mike Johnson. ADF’s head from 2017 to 2022 was Michael Farris, a prominent Christian nationalist who spearheaded one of the attacks on the 2020 election. The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated ADF an anti-LGBTQ hate group. They are currently led by Kristen Waggoner, the lead attorney for Masterpiece Cakeshop. These days, documents obtained by Documented suggests that ADF is involved in a plan to dismantle public education. 

ILC has been consistent in representing pro-Christian, anti-LGBTQ, anti-abortion points of view. So it should be no surprise that in recent years they have been plenty busy with work in school districts.

ILC and Public Schools

ILC has worked in a number of school districts around the Commonwealth. 

In 2012, Wenger worked with ADF to provide cover for a school board in Mercer County that wanted to “solemnize” its meetings with a prayer. That year they were also involved in a dispute between the Harrisburg school district and Child Evangelism Fellowship over release time allowing the group to “feed lunch to participating elementary students (off site) and also feed them truth from God’s word.”

In 2017, ILC teamed up again with ASDF for a lawsuit against the Boyerstown Area School District, alleging that the district was promoting sexual harassment of students by allowing trans students to use the locker rooms for their identified gender. Though they aimed for the Supreme Court, SCOTUS chose not to hear the appeal of the Third Circuit ruling in favor of the district. ILC also involved itself in a similar case involving a trans student in Virginia.

READ: Moms for Liberty and the Dominionist Assault on America’s ‘Education Mountain’

In 2019, ILC took the Mechanicsburg district to court because it was prohibiting students in Christians In Action from handing out Bibles during lunch (the district’s policy banned handing out all non-school literature). 

In 2020, they warned 50 Pennsylvania districts that they were illegally targeting students’ religious speech.

Many of these cases are highlighted on ILC’s page of “case news.” They are less forthcoming about their other growth business—quietly writing discriminatory policy for right-wing school board members.

ILC and Regressive, Repressive Board Policies

The Central Bucks school board famously became the poster for right-wing culture panic takeover, launching a batch of anti-LGBTQ, anti-reading policies, while steadfastly refusing to tell non-right-wing members of the board exactly who was “helping” write those policies. 

But some metadata showed that at least some of those policies had passed across Jeremy Samek’s desk, and when former board Vice President Leigh Vlasblom moved on to a job with the right-wing Leadership Institute (in the division formerly headed up by Moms for Liberty co-founder Bridget Ziegler until revelations about a Ziegler menage a trois suggested that her opposition to LGBTQ sex was not truly heartfelt), Vlasblom bragged that during her board tenure she had “worked extensively with PA Family Institute, Independence Law Firm, Keeping Kids in School PAC, Hope 4 PA, and Bucks Families for Leadership.” 

When pressed, Central Bucks board President Dana Hunter finally admitted working with ILC’s Samek, arguing that since he was working pro bono, she had no obligation to inform other board members – or district parents and taxpayers.

ILC’s involvement in developing Central Bucks policy was certainly not a secret in certain circles, because when Penncrest School District, located in the other corner of the state, set out to install a similarly repressive set of policies, at least two board members also reached out to Jeremy Samek and ILC. 

“I spoke to Independence Law Center,” emailed board member David Valesky to board president Luigi DeFrancesco, “and they forwarded lots of info. They are willing to help with future policy development.” The email referenced Samek by name. 

Other districts have worked closely with ILC to draft policies to ban books and trans athletes. When Hempfield’s school board worked on book restrictions and trans athlete restrictions in 2022 and 2023, their board not only used ILC advice for crafting the policies, but met with Wenger in executive session. 

READ: Project 2025 Wants to End Public Education As We Know It

Pennridge School Board, most famous for its employment of Jordan Adams’ one man Vermilion Education consulting firm, was also found to be in contact with ILC.  

Three GOP members of the Warwick school board were called out in March of 2023 for meeting with Wenger. As Lancaster Online reported:

“So yes, I did have a meeting with the Independence Law Center, and no, the Independence Law Center is not a hate group,” member Jim Koelsch said. “The ILC is a group of very good lawyers doing some great work for the communities in Pennsylvania.”

That work consistently involves pushing Christian values, supporting reading restrictions, and opposing LGBTQ rights. Central York School District drew considerable attention for what was, in 2021, the highest number of books banned in the country. FOIA requests pulled emails that showed that to manage the fallout and try to hold onto the policy, the district turned to ILC. The emails between Superintendent Peter Aiken and Samek were heavily redacted, but the tone was certainly chatty (“Let’s grab lunch again soon man,” writes Samek to Aiken at one point).

In the Red Lion District, ILC helped craft anti-trans policies about which bathrooms trans students may use, which sports teams they may join, and which pronouns they may use.

In one case, ILC returned to the scene of earlier work. Dover Area School Board hired the firm, for free. Dover previously made news 20 years ago when the board required that the science department teach Intelligent Design, yet another attempt to mask religious values in secular language. The district was challenged in court and lost. One of the attorneys who filed briefs on behalf of the district was Wenger, who at the time was working as a lawyer for the Foundation for Thoughts and Ethics, the Christian “think tank” that produced the intelligent design text that Dover used. Some Dover taxpayers remember.

“Mr. Wenger did not have Dover families’ interests in mind 20 years ago and he doesn’t appear to now, either,” one Dover Area parent, Kara Hetrick, said at a recent school board meeting.

While some boards have lost their conservative majorities, ILC remains connected to many districts in Pennsylvania. Last month, the Northern York School District board voted to contract with ILC, adding to their clientele in that county. The South Western School District, also in York County, just “tentatively adopted” policies to restrict reading materials and to allow teachers to refuse to use a student’s preferred pronouns; both were created with ILC “guidance.”

READ: Christian Nationalists Are Closer than Ever to Getting Church-Run Public Schools

Also last month, South Side Area School District in Beaver County passed policies saying that students must play sports and use locker rooms and bathrooms that align with their gender at birth, as well as one saying that staff do not have to use students’ preferred pronouns. Since 2022, the district has been using Jeremy Samek and ILC.

The appeal of the Independence Law Center for the Right is easy enough to see. If you are looking for policies for banning books and discriminating against LGBTQ students, they can provide you with ready-made policy language, mask your theocratic ambitions with secular language, and do it all for free. They’re free because at the end of the day, they aren’t working for the district that “hires” them, but for the leaders and quiet donors of the Pennsylvania Family Institute, who continue to pursue the goal of bringing Pennsylvania back to God (at least, the God they prefer). 

If ILC turns up in your district, that’s the goal.

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Picture of Peter Greene

Peter Greene

Peter Greene is a recently retired classroom secondary English teacher of 39 years. He lives and works in a small town in Northwest Pennsylvania, and blogs at Curmudgucation.

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