ORLANDO, Fla. (RNS) — Last summer, when Miami-Dade County’s school board reversed itself, voting to reject two sex education textbooks for use in its middle and high schools, The New York Times reported that the school board had folded to “pressure from parents empowered by a new state education law” — specifically Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Parental Rights in Education Act, more familiarly known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
Yet, according to accounts of the July public comment session where the vote was taken, all but two of the 38 who came to the microphones voiced their support for the sex ed curriculum. The pressure to ban the textbooks, local activists say, came instead from conservative groups, particularly Citizens Defending Freedom, which gave interviews to local media and pressured board members to ban references to abortion or gender identity “ideology” in schools.
“I think it was like two or three people from Moms for Liberty, and then one or two people from CDF,” recalled Maxx Fenning, executive director for Prism, a South Florida organization which advocates for LGBTQ inclusion that championed the two textbooks in Miami-Dade.
While CDF is hardly a household name, its activists have become regular voices before school boards and in other public meetings across Texas, Georgia, and especially Florida since the group was founded roughly two years ago.
Rooted in religion and endorsed by figures such as former Trump adviser Michael Flynn, CDF members have been acting as foot soldiers in a broader culture war, fighting small, local battles to slow COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, back abortion bans and remove books they find objectionable from schools — including targeting books (or events) that promote LGBTQ equality or detail the experiences of LGBTQ people.
Fenning described the CDF as a segment of an emerging conservative activist coalition that includes the Florida-based Christian Family Coalition and the increasingly national Moms for Liberty.
“We see them as Moms for Liberty in suits,” Fenning said of CDF.
The inspiration for CDF, according to insiders, came in 2021, when Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul spoke with a group of faith and business leaders meeting at Mar-a-Lago, former President Donald Trump’s Palm Beach resort. Steve Maxwell, CEO of Highland Packaging Solutions, which makes plastic clamshells and other containers for produce, later told the newspaper Florida Today that he was impressed with Paul’s frank assessment of Washington as rife with corruption. Shortly afterward, Maxwell founded CDF with John Durham, a fellow entrepreneur Maxwell attended church with during a stint in Texas.
The model for CDF’s activism is an old one, utilized by religious right groups going back to the late 1980s. Organizing nationally but working on the county level — CDF was originally named County Citizens Defending Freedom — Christian conservatives take over school boards and other local political entities, where their influence is at the classroom level and in local voting precincts and scrutiny from the political opposition and the press is low.
“The fight to save America begins at the LOCAL level,” reads an early CDF brochure for funders that details plans to expand into 100 counties nationwide. In a recent promotional video, Maxwell said CDF would focus on the counties he called the nation’s “most corrupt.”
Beginning in Polk County, in central Florida where Maxwell is based, CDF has rapidly created about 20 visibly active county-level chapters, each representing itself as a local group, which sends representatives to agitate for causes at public meetings like the one in Miami-Dade. Last month, CDF leaders in Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa, addressed a school board meeting about plans to declare June Pride Month.
“You’re telling us that Pride Month in school is on your top priority list?” said Antonio Annesi, operations and research division leader for Hillsborough County’s CDF chapter. “Let’s call it for what it is: celebrating who minors sleep with and are sexually attracted to.”
The Hillsborough board passed the Pride Month resolution anyway, but next door in Polk County, a similar proclamation — which CDF leaders claimed in an interview with a local ABC affiliate amounted to “promoting what’s going on in people’s bedrooms” — was pulled.
At times, CDF focuses campaigns on a book or program that might also attract critics from outside of the conservative political spectrum. In April, CDF led the fight to remove a Japanese manga titled “Assassination Classroom” from Florida’s middle school libraries, arguing the graphic novel’s depiction of students attempting to kill an evil alien teacher was “inappropriate for children in that age group,” especially in the wake of numerous school shootings.
But the core of CDF’s messaging comes out of a brand of conservative Christianity that sees American values and a specific understanding of Christian values as inextricably linked by God’s will. “Our loyalty and our mission will be founded upon the belief system found in the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution of the United States of America,” Maxwell said in a speech last year. “Our moral standards will be based on the laws of nature and nature’s God.”
CDF’s rhetoric often interweaves Christian imagery with political philosophy. “Americans are Blessed by freedom as God intended: not only are we FREE FROM eternal condemnation through Christ’s redemption on the cross, but we are FREE TO pursue a life of meaning, a life of purpose, and a life of liberty,” reads the funders’ packet.
Like other conservatives who mingle Christianity with American identity, James Judge, a spokesman for CDF, was ambivalent about the term “Christian nationalism” in a recent interview in his Tampa office, where on a coffee table sat a taxidermic alligator head biting into a basketball. Asked about critics who call CDF a Christian nationalist organization, he dismissed Christian nationalism as way of insulting people who simply want to be “a Christian … who loves your country” and accused critics of “making Christian nationalism sound like it’s a bad thing.” He insisted that he doesn’t want to force people to believe in a specific form of Christianity.
He was more comfortable talking about “Judeo-Christian values.” Asked what these were, Judge left the office and returned brandishing a framed copy of the Declaration of Independence. “Where does law come from? Law comes from God,” he said, and proceeded to argue the U.S. legal system is ultimately based on “Mosaic law.”
When asked which Judeo-Christian values his organization strives to represent, he reached behind him and grabbed a worn, leather book. “The Bible,” he said, waving it about excitedly.
Amid its high-flown rhetoric, CDF’s political approach is also influenced by common Republican resentments about Trump’s failed bid for a second presidential term. Judge, who lost his own bid for U.S. Congress in 2022, said at least one of CDF’s founders was driven by “concerns over what happened during the 2020 election.”
CDF also claims to have played a significant role in ending the Walt Disney Co.’s vaccine mandate for workers at Disney World. The funder packet portrays CDF leaders as “working behind the scenes to draft” the law signed by DeSantis that led to the entertainment giant rescinding its requirement that employees be vaccinated.
CDF has attracted people further to the right, some with extremist ties. In May, a Miami school made headlines after it restricted access to a book penned by Amanda Gorman, the young woman who read her poem “The Hill We Climb” at President Joe Biden’s inauguration. The complaint against Gorman’s book was filed by a parent named Daily Salinas, who was later revealed to have been active with CDF as well as Moms for Liberty.
Salinas has also posted photos of herself with Proud Boys, a far-right chauvinist group whose leaders have burned Black Lives Matter signs owned by churches and been found guilty of seditious conspiracy for their role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Judge stressed that Salinas was never employed by CDF, while acknowledging she may have attended events. “We have thousands of concerned parents and citizens across the country, who, like us, attend various meetings and events,” Judge said.
CDF was among several conservative groups, including the Christian Family Coalition, that showed up for a Miami-Dade school board meeting that was slated to discuss a resolution declaring October LGBTQ History Month. Fenning noted Proud Boys also showed up, in bulletproof vests. Despite having supported a similar resolution in 2021 and despite the many constituents who spoke in favor of it, the school board rejected it. Afterward, Fenning said, Proud Boys followed LGBTQ activists to their cars.
From its beginnings, CDF has connected with right-wing figures such as Flynn, a former Trump national security adviser and an organizer of the series of Christian nationalist rallies known as the ReAwaken America Tour. Flynn appeared at one of the first events CDF hosted after its founding. In video of the gathering, he is seen encouraging attendees to donate while insisting the U.S. is in the midst of an ideological “war.”
CDF also lists among its partner organizations Turning Point USA, a group founded as a conservative student organization by activist Charlie Kirk that recently pivoted to faith outreach, encouraging pastors to embrace right-wing rhetoric as a church-growth strategy.
“Charlie did a phone call last night with CDF and some of the donors,” said Judge.
The CDF website cites partnerships with Liberty Counsel, an Orlando-based conservative Christian legal group that had a prominent role in faith-based protests against pandemic restrictions; Patriot Academy, a group that works with Turning Point to produce “biblical citizenship” courses; and Liberty Pastors, which hosts conservative-leaning “training camps” for pastors and encourages supporters to join CDF on its website.
While Moms for Liberty is not among its official partners, CDF came to the group’s defense after the Southern Poverty Law Center declared last month that Moms for Liberty is an extremist group involved in an “anti-student inclusion movement.” CDF quickly issued a rebuttal insisting the SPLC, not Moms for Liberty, is the “actual hate group” and a “terror organization.”
But CDF’s value as a partner may also include its ability to raise money. At an early CDF event, Maxwell surprised a speaker from Alliance Defending Freedom, the conservative legal group that recently won a Colorado website designer’s religious liberty case at the U.S. Supreme Court, with a check for $100,000. According to tax documents, ADF has at least partially reciprocated, awarding CDF a $50,000 grant in 2021.
The sources of this money aren’t entirely clear. Judge declined to name big-money donors, offering only that CDF has amassed somewhere between 14,000 and 15,000 small-donor contributions.
It’s the cash, too, that worries Fenning of Prism. While CDF and its partners often lack “people power” to push through their agenda, he said, they make up for it with money and influence.
But as religious right campaigners have shown for nearly half a century, more valuable than money is attention to organizing, backed by a message that ties progressive causes to a hostility to conservative Christian values, or what Judge calls “rebellion against God.”
“This country is founded on God,” he said. “We think it’s critically important to maintain that belief.”
(This story was reported with support from the Stiefel Freethought Foundation.)