In Pennsylvania, Serpents and School Boards and the Independence Law Center, Again

Christian Right culture warriors are doing "a better job at being clever as serpents” in their war on public education.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Here’s one more story of how Pennsylvania’s leading right-wing law firm wiggles its serpentine way into local districts. Central York School District in Pennsylvania was one of the early poster children for reactionary culture panic board takeovers, and they leaped right into book banning–and then leaped back out because a Large Fuss was raised. And then they continued to wrangle over book banning, particularly banning that seemed aimed at erasing LGBTQ and non-white voices. 

This was a place that made its banning choices by looking at a list of 300 works recommended by a diversity committee and saying “Nope” to all of them, including works like Brad Meltzer’s I Am Rosa Parks (a children’s book). 

In the midst of all this noise were board members Vicki Guth and Veronica Gemma, who back in August of 2020 faced calls for their resignation over comments questioning any need for teaching about tolerance and racism. 

Gemma was the president of the board at that time, and when she didn’t resign, voters took the old-fashioned route and voted her out of office, hard. Gemma did not quietly; as a lame duck, she tried to mount an investigation into the book ban controversy, taking a slant that would be used later by Ron DeSantis, arguing that some people just meddled with the list to make the board look bad. “It was a collaborative effort to destroy our reputation for political reasons,” Gemma said. Because, you know, the banning of diversity texts wouldn’t have looked bad on its own.

Gemma found herself a job that seems to fit. She now works as a district office manager for York County state Rep. Joe D’Orsie (R-Mount Wolf). D’Orsie introduced legislation exempting school employees from honoring the pronouns of LGBTQ+ students, similar to a policy drafted by the ILC and passed by the Red Lion Area School Board last year.

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

But that’s not her only new gig. She’s also Director of Education for the PA Economic Growth PAC. The PAC is headed by John Davis, who owns a mall in York, along with Kristen Rohrbaugh, a “seasoned brand specialist” and Don Yoder, all of whom contributed a small pile of money to the group. The group stands for “championing freedom, preserving capitalism, demanding transparency, and empowering the people,” though as with many right wing groups, those stances come with asterisks.

For instance, that one about transparency.

Here’s Gemma talking to Epoch Times about her gig, to combat critical race theory and DEI.

PAEGPAC did a lot of mailing work for campaigns (with Rohrbaugh’s company apparently doing the design work), though they did chip in $500 to the 1776 Project PAC, a million-dollar PAC that targeted school board elections.

But now The York Dispatch has unearthed emails that show the PAC has been doing more than just sending out mailings.

Meredith Willse, writing for the Dispatch, shows how Gemma put together some secret meetings to play matchmaker between York school boards and the right-wing law firm, Independence Law Center, the firm that specializes in crafting anti-LGBTQ, anti-DEI, anti-book policies for districts all across the state. 

In a March 4 email, Gemma invited members from 12 school districts across York County, warning them specifically not to bring more than four members because any more would make the meeting subject to Pennsylvania’s sunshine laws. Turns out the PAC’s interest in transparency has some exceptions.

Ther secret meeting was on March 15 at an East York warehouse, located in the rear of a strip mall, with catering by Round the Clock Diner. You will be unsurprised that nobody answered Willse’s request for a comment.

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

The email referred to the ILC, a firm that many York County districts have been hiring this spring. And the email makes clear that this is a regular get together: 

We finally nailed down a date that works for most. Keep in mind we will have these meetings every quarter so if you miss this one, we can see you at the next.

In a separate editorial, the York Dispatch Editorial Board does a good job of connecting the dots. They look back to a 2005 meeting with ILC’s chief counsel Randall Wenger, who had worked with another firm as counsel in the case that ultimately threw out Dover School Board’s attempt to inject creationism into science classes. His take was that the board members had been to clear and transparent about their intent to inject religion into school. 

He told attendees: “I think we need to do a better job at being clever as serpents.”

So now ILC and their allies show their commitment to acting like serpents, because lying and sneaking are super-consistent with Christian values. 

Secret meetings seem to be a special technique of, which has also set up secret meetings with board members in my corner of the state

READ: Pennsylvania Conservative Group Recruiting Informants to Report on Public Schools

At this point, it’s best to assume that if your board is making noise about anti-LGBTQ, anti-book policies, ILC is in your neighborhood, slithering and you just need to start turning over rocks to find them. 

It reminds me of a saying that friend used to keep on his fridge. It’s about using any means to an end, to the effect that since we rarely fully achieve our ends, we are much more defined by the means we use. If you get really good at being a serpent, don’t be surprised at the end of the day when you find you can’t shed your skin. 

This was originally published at the progressive education blog Curmudgucation, and was lightly edited.

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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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