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As Republicans compete in New Hampshire, ‘parental rights’ come to the fore

GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley with “Moms For Liberty” founder Tiffany Justice, at far left, during a Town Hall meeting at Founders Academy in Manchester, N.H.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Two years ago, when “Moms for Liberty” offered a $500 bounty to parents who reported public school teachers for breaking a new state law about discussing race in the classroom, Republican New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu slammed the move as “wholly inappropriate.”

Now, as Republican presidential hopefuls court voters in the first-in-the-nation primary state, they are lining up to appear with the national conservative organization, which has been labeled an “extremist” group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Parental rights — a term used as shorthand largely by conservative groups that oppose how some public schools approach race, sexuality, and gender identity — is the latest culture war being waged in New Hampshire and across the country. As the crowded field of Republican presidential hopefuls seeks to win support away from former president Trump, the issue has begun to claim a dominant place in the political conversation, even in a purple state not known for embracing conservative social causes.

Republican voters, even some who don’t currently have kids enrolled in public schools, say they are concerned with how educators are addressing issues of diversity and identity; in some cases, they raised the issue unprompted in interviews with the Globe. And Republican presidential candidates are capitalizing on the attention whipped up by conservative groups. Both businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley have appeared at New Hampshire town halls with Moms for Liberty, which has waged campaigns to wrest control of local school boards in various states, a testament to the organization’s growing influence in the Republican party and the state.


At an event in a charter school here last week, Haley told a small crowd that Tiffany Justice, the group’s cofounder, was doing “God’s work.”

“You’re fighting every mom’s fight,” Haley said. “I can’t thank you enough.”


Many New Hampshire GOP voters, even those attending political events here with presidential candidates, said they were unfamiliar with the Moms for Liberty group itself. But they expressed concern about how gender identity is being taught in the classroom and fretted that parental involvement is too limited.

“Parental rights are being threatened now by big government,” said Lisa Couture, 59, of Salem, who came to hear Haley speak on education issues Wednesday night as she shops for a 2024 candidate. She hadn’t been familiar with Moms for Liberty before the event, she said, but “I will be on the website tonight.”

Moms for Liberty, founded in Florida in 2021 out of frustration with COVID-related restrictions in schools, has built on its influence in local school board races to become a force in national politics this year. Top presidential candidates including Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis spoke at the organization’s annual conference in Philadelphia this summer. And its message — advocating for book bans, and, watchdogs say, promoting hateful rhetoric about the LGBTQ community — has begun to take hold across the country, with hundreds of chapters spanning nearly every state.

In New Hampshire, the organization’s reach seems comparatively modest, even as its core message falls on sympathetic ears.

Rachel Goldsmith, who founded the first chapter in New Hampshire, estimated her Hillsborough County group has between 50 and 100 members, with about 1,300 followers on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. Neither she nor Sayra DeVito, who leads New Hampshire’s other chapter, currently has a child enrolled in public school in the state.


For Republican candidates in New Hampshire, lining up with organizations such as Moms for Liberty is a savvy political move, said Fergus Cullen, a former chair of the state GOP and a vocal critic of Donald Trump.

“When it comes to a choice between who gets to make educational decisions about kids, if it’s a choice between parents and school bureaucrats, you want to be on the side of parents every time,” Cullen said.

The issues are particularly salient in New Hampshire, he added, where the Legislature recently rejected a “parental bill of rights” that would have required educators to disclose to parents, if they asked, whether their child was using a different name or being referred to as a different gender at school. In the New Hampshire House, where the parties are nearly evenly divided, it failed 195–190.

And the Manchester public school district is being sued over a policy that generally prevents staff from disclosing a student’s gender identity to their parents without the child’s permission. Richard Lehmann, a lawyer suing the district who is also the longtime legal counsel for Republicans in the state Senate, appeared at Wednesday’s event with Haley and Moms for Liberty.

“Parents’ rights is going to be a huge issue” in New Hampshire and across the country, predicted Chris Ager, the chair of the state’s Republican party, in an interview with the Globe. “It’s important to a lot of parents regardless of where they are on the political spectrum.”


Earlier this year, Ager defended Moms for Liberty when a Democratic New Hampshire state representative blasted the group as “a–holes with casseroles, taliban in minivan.”

“Let them have their voice,” Ager said. “I haven’t seen anything extreme come from them at all except not toeing Democratic talking points.”

In an address last week at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, former vice president Mike Pence listed public education among the reasons “this country’s in a lot of trouble.”

“Our schools teach children to hate their own history,” Pence said, in an apparent reference to educational efforts to teach about slavery, and the broader presence and legacy of structural racism in the United States. “And even many of our public schools teach our kids that boys can become girls, and girls can become boys.”

The message, albeit nonspecific, resonated with some of the undecided Republican voters in the audience.

“What they’re teaching kids in school, it’s awful,” said Angel Ryan, 71, of Manchester, though she could not immediately name any troublesome examples in New Hampshire. Her nine children are all out of high school now, she said, and attended Catholic schools for the most part, not public institutions.

Arnie Arnesen, a radio host and former Democratic nominee for New Hampshire governor, said Republican presidential candidates’ attention to the issue does not reflect New Hampshire parents’ concerns.

“It’s not about our parents, it’s about their political agenda,” she said. “It’s a national message, but not a New Hampshire message.”


Parental rights, she speculated, are “a distraction so we don’t talk about abortion” — a cultural issue that has proven politically challenging for Republicans across the country since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

Still, there are indications that national debates over what’s going on in public school classrooms have entered the minds of parents in New Hampshire. A March poll from the University of New Hampshire found residents were divided on the “parental bill of rights” moving through the state Legislature. And 64 percent of respondents said parents have a right to know if their child is identifying at school as a different gender than when enrolled.

Sitting in the audience before Pence spoke last week, Michael Pitaro, a 65-year-old undecided Republican voter from Bedford, said public school teachings on gender identity, “from what I’ve heard, it just doesn’t sound right.”

Pitaro’s kids are out of school, and he was not familiar with Moms for Liberty. But when it comes to parents groups working to assert more control over what happens in the classroom, he said, “I don’t see that as extreme.”

Emma Platoff can be reached at Follow her @emmaplatoff.