Speaking to a crowd of around 100 people at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Parish in the small city of Hastings, Minnesota on July 18, an Alliance Defending Freedom lawyer offered audience members a word of advice: God wants you to reject transgender-inclusive policies, specifically those that protect transgender youth.
The lawyer’s comments were part of an hour-long presentation meant to educate the community on why they should oppose efforts to affirm transgender students in local schools. It was an event organized by the Minnesota Family Council, an anti-LGBTQ group founded in 1983 and active in conservative politics since the mid-1990s.
Dave Edwards, the father of a trans daughter who has faced off with the Minnesota Family Council in the past, attended that meeting and shared with ThinkProgress what was said, including the under-the-table ways in which religious conservatives are using fear to rally their bases and push back against those who are different.
A community in transition
Like much of Minnesota, the demographics of Hastings have been changing in recent years. In response to those changes, the town’s leaders hosted a big community event back in April, meant to ensure that Hastings is a safe and inclusive place to live for all people, including its newest residents.
The city council and school board also issued a joint resolution celebrating not only ethnic and racial diversity, but all forms of diversity, including sexual orientation and gender identity. It was a commitment to stay informed and oppose intolerance. “In Hastings, ‘All are Welcome!'” officials wrote.
About a month later, a group of eight Hastings religious leaders issued a response to that resolution, indicating that they supported this “good and noble cause” — except when it came to “the promotion of transgenderism.”
The group insisted that gender dysphoria, which they described as “confusion about gender identity,” is “factually unsubstantiated” and “hazardous to the wellbeing of our children and young adults.” They discouraged the Hastings City Council and school board from “normalizing Gender Dysphoria and encouraging young people to question their gender identity.”
The group also expressed support for efforts to “prevent transgenderism from needlessly confusing children and teens in our public schools,” including blocking them from pursuing hormone treatments.
When schools affirm transgender kids and let them share facilities with other students of the same gender, it places those other students into “unacceptably embarrassing, even traumatic situations,” they wrote. And they are concerned affirming transgender kids will cause “serious psychological, emotional and relational harm to the children and young adults of Hastings.”
“Are we being intolerant? No,” they insisted. “However, we are not willing to sacrifice our children on an altar of social experimentation and political correctness.”
Though the pastors’ letter was dated May 31, it’s unclear where it was promoted or shared, aside from being made available on the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (SEAS) website. According to a local news report, the letter began circulating on Snapchat last week. None of the faith leaders responded to interview requests about the letter.
The Minnesota Family Council
In the July 1 edition of the SEAS biweekly news bulletin, the parish advertised an event called “Responding with Truth and Compassion to the Transgender Trend.” The advertisement claimed that the event was “sponsored by eight Hastings Churches” as well as the Minnesota Family Council. It promised that there would be a legal presentation, prayer, and parent resources from Ask Me First MN, a project of the Minnesota Family Council and the Family Policy Alliance (the political arm of Focus on the Family).
The Ask Me First campaign peddles the myth that transgender people inherently pose a threat to safety and privacy rights.
According to Edwards, the event’s description on the SEAS Parish website encouraged parishioners to read the pastors’ letter before attending the meeting. The description has since been taken down, but that may be how the pastors’ letter was ever made public in the first place.
The event was seemingly promoted nowhere else. Neither the Minnesota Family Council, the Family Policy Alliance, nor the Alliance Defending Freedom promoted it publicly. ThinkProgress could likewise find no evidence that the other churches whose pastors had signed the letter promoted it in writing anywhere online.
Edwards first heard about the event through a fellow member of the Transforming Families group, which helps Minnesota parents who are raising transgender and gender nonconforming children. He told ThinkProgress he thought it was important to attend the meeting because he had personally witnessed the effects of the Minnesota Family Council’s work in other communities.
As a kindergartner at Nova Classical Academy in St. Paul, Edwards’ daughter was struggling to figure out her gender identity. Dave and his wife Hannah asked the school to affirm her for who she is and to provide educational resources on transgender identities to all the children, to help protect her from bullying. The school initially agreed to their request, offering Edwards’ daughter the support she needed.
A group of parents objected to that decision, however, organizing with the Minnesota Family Council against Edwards’ family to convince the school to backtrack on the support it had offered, which it eventually did. The Edwards subsequently sued the school and later withdrew their daughter. Last year, Nova Classical Academy settled the lawsuit, agreeing to pay the family $120,000 and to implement fully inclusive policies for transgender students.
Though their daughter is now in a safe and inclusive environment, Dave and Hannah have not stopped fighting to protect other children as well. “MFC and ADF are hate groups,” Edwards said in an email to ThinkProgress this week. “When they organize in local communities to make schools unsafe for trans students, we want to be prepared for what is coming to try and mitigate the harm they will be causing.”
The ADF speaker
The featured speaker at the July 18 meeting in Hastings was Renee Carlson, a private attorney allied with the Alliance Defending Freedom, an anti-LGBTQ hate group. She has served as “local counsel” on several of ADF’s high profile cases, including a 2016 lawsuit against a Minnesota school that demonized a transgender student for merely using the locker room. That lawsuit primarily targeted Obama-era guidance protecting transgender students, so after the Trump administration withdrew the guidance, ADF dropped the suit.
Carlson has a long history of opposing LGBTQ equality. She continues to serve as local counsel in another ADF case, a pair of Christian videographers who are challenging the Minnesota Human Rights Act in hopes of getting into the wedding business while discriminating against same-sex couples. Carlson also lobbied the Minnesota State High School League against including transgender students in high school sports and advocated against marriage equality before that.
In addition to working with ADF, Carlson was a founding member of North Star, an alliance of Minnesota attorneys “advocating for religious liberty, and the sanctity of life, marriage and family.”
According to Edwards, throughout her hour-long presentation, Carlson repeatedly told the crowd at SEAS that transgender people — and any policies that affirm them — pose a threat to their children’s privacy, safety, and dignity, as well as their own parental rights. She also reinforced that their religious beliefs should supersede respect for transgender people
“Carlson was pretty intent on framing LGBTQ people in general, and trans kids specifically, as being incompatible with their form of Christianity,” Edwards recounted. “Their version of truth demands that they reject people who don’t fit within their unscientific and inaccurate views of the world.”
Like the pastors did in their letter, Carlson insisted that rejecting transgender people was not a form of intolerance. Instead, she told the crowd that they were the ones being persecuted by having their religious beliefs censored. For example, Minnesota’s anti-bullying law enumerates protections on the basis of gender identity, and last year the Minnesota Department of Education issued a new toolkit for protecting transgender students. But Carlson encouraged the crowd to fear transgender kids in their schools.
“Trans people, and trans kids in school, were discussed as though their identities were something other children could catch like a virus,” Edwards said. “If they choose to ignore all evidence that a person’s gender identity is something they are born with, they have to make up an alternative version of reality where ‘gender confusion’ is contagious.”
Being transgender, Carlson said, is an “ideology” that is inconsistent with science and medicine. Edwards described her as being “entirely uninformed about current best practice guidelines issued by the major organizations in the medical community.”
Indeed, there is consensus across all major medical organizations that transgender identities are real and that the best way to treat transgender people is by affirming them for who they are. By contrast, organizations like the American College of Pediatricians, an anti-LGBTQ conservative advocacy group, peddle their own ideology and claim it represents “disagreement” among medical professionals.
Nevertheless, Edwards said Carlson repeatedly insisted being transgender was just a feeling. She downplayed policies that force transgender students to use isolated private facilities — instead of using restrooms with everybody else — and, in rejecting arguments that this approach constituted segregation, she echoed the “biology, not bigotry” motto many opponents of transgender equality use.
At one point, Edwards said, Carlson actually discussed Edwards’ fight against Nova Classical Academy, and projected Edwards’ photo on a screen. “The speaker from ADF consistently misgendered every trans person she spoke about, including our minor child,” he said. “They have a lot of anger and resentment towards our family because we ultimately won our battle to protect trans students at Nova Classical Academy. ”
Carlson didn’t mention the family’s legal victory. Instead, she claimed that conversations about Edwards’ daughter had somehow negatively impacted other kids in the school. While there’s no evidence the students at Nova Classical Academy were actually affected by the suit, parents at the school were unafraid to voice their critical opinions on the subject regardless.
“The only thing they have left to cling to,” Edwards said, “is a manufactured harm caused by having to explain to their children that trans people exist.”
Carlson also spoke at length about the case of Gavin Grimm, a transgender student who sued the Gloucester County School Board in Virginia for the right to use the boys’ bathroom. Grimm’s case went before the U.S. Supreme Court, but was kicked back to the lower courts after the Trump administration withdrew the guidance protecting transgender students. Grimm’s fight continues, and in May, he won a big victory in the reboot of his case. Last month, the district promised to appeal.
Despite this, Carlson reportedly claimed the case was over, telling the crowd that it was moot because Grimm had graduated. Edwards said he was shocked Carlson had “outright lied” and that nobody questioned her.
“It’s disappointing to see a mass of people accept such blatant misinformation when they could find out the truth by pulling out their phones and doing a quick Google search,” he said.
According to Edwards, Carlson’s most prominent argument was that transgender people inherently pose a threat simply by existing in spaces that correspond with their gender identity. Edwards said he worries about the impact such rhetoric has on his daughter and other trans kids like her.
“Large groups of people denying the humanity of our daughter, and attempting to organize ways to prevent her from existing in public spaces, is inherently unsafe, even if they are ultimately unsuccessful in their goals,” he said.
Towards the end of Carlson’s presentation, someone from the Minnesota Family Council staff recognized Edwards, prompting him to leave the meeting early. And despite his abrupt departure, he said he was glad he went.
“People who aren’t ashamed of their viewpoints don’t insist on secrecy,” he added.
ThinkProgress has reached out to ADF for comment and is awaiting a response.