The Truth & Liberty Coalition, a right-wing evangelical group, frequently claims to provide “biblical answers, information, and resources to help you stand for truth and affect godly change.” But late last month, it also provided a platform to a Larimer County activist and mother, who’s currently involved in a lawsuit against a Colorado school district over several of its policies relating to the LGBTQ community.
The federal lawsuit, which is being spearheaded by the right-wing America First Policy Institute, contends that the plaintiffs’ middle school-aged children were lured under false pretense into a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) meeting by Poudre School District staff, who allegedly referred to the meeting as “Art Club.”
Erin Lee and her husband Jonathan, who were the lawsuit’s initial plaintiffs but were later joined by two other parents, say the topics discussed by a guest speaker in this meeting – “being transgender,” queerness, and polyamory, among others – caused their child to experience “gender and sexuality confusion that required counseling and included suicidal thoughts.”
The Colorado Times Recorder is unable to directly verify these claims. However, in the majority of cases, family rejection has served as a major predictor for negative mental health outcomes in LGBTQ youth. Conversely, family acceptance has been linked to positive health outcomes.
The lawsuit also alleges that children were told it was not necessary to inform their parents about what went on during the meetings, and that later PSD staff did not disclose this information to parents. The lawsuit primarily contests that this is a violation of parents’ “rights to direct their children’s education” in accordance with their own “strong and sincere religious conviction.” It also requests a court injunction requiring PSD to notify parents in advance if trans-related topics will be brought up in school, and allow parents to opt their children out of these discussions.
In a statement provided to the Colorado Times Recorder, Kimberly Chambers, the Executive Director of SPLASH NoCo and the guest speaker at the May 2021 GSA meeting, said that Erin Lee had emailed her shortly after the meeting. Chambers said she then told Lee about everything she had discussed with the students.
The Fort Collins Coloradoan reported extensively on the Lees’ allegations in May 2022, a year before the federal lawsuit was filed.
At the start of the 2021-2022 school year, PSD cut ties with SPLASH NoCo, the nonprofit that coordinated the district’s resources for LGBTQ students, opting instead to hire an in-school coordinator.
Chambers, answering written questions from the Coloradoan, said the events of the May 2021 meeting “have been mischaracterized” and that “no student was ever forced or coerced to attend or stay at the meeting for any reason whatsoever.”
After the lawsuit was filed in May, a spokesperson for PSD told the Coloradoan that “we believe the district’s policies around supporting all students, including those who hold the LGBTQIA+ identity, align with current state and federal law. Those guidelines are publicly available on our website. By law, students have the right to be free from discrimination and have access to a safe and inclusive learning environment.”
During her appearance on a Truth & Liberty Coalition livestream, Erin Lee went on to accuse Chambers of being a “predator” – inflammatory language not mentioned at all in the text of the lawsuit, which was originally posted online by the right-wing Daily Caller.
“It was an indoctrination session. And they had invited in this outside person completely unvetted,” Lee said. “And this woman runs an organization called ‘SKITTLES’ for kids 5 to 11 to discuss gender and sexuality, and ‘SPLASH’ for kids 12 and older. She’s a predator.”
Lee’s framing ties the case to a powerful trend in conservative discourse, which smears gay and trans people as being child predators, more recently elided to “groomers.” Both in Colorado and nationally, Republicans have used this as a wedge issue to rile up voters – at the expense of LGBTQ people, who have faced escalating hate-fueled violence in the past few years, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Lee would later go on to broaden her accusation beyond her personal experience, saying that anyone who discusses these topics with children is also a predator. She directly compared discussions of LGBTQ topics in school settings to the sensational reality TV show, NBC’s Dateline series “To Catch a Predator,” in which host Chris Hansen set up sting operations to confront and arrest pedophiles.
“Do you see any parallels between what the school is doing in these cases and sort of, like, predatory behavior by pedophiles?” host Richard Harris, who is Executive Director at Truth & Liberty, asked. “Can you draw any similarities there?”
“I mean, if you watched the old show ‘To Catch a Predator,’ it’s — what the schools are doing with our children is a textbook play-by-play of what those predators do,” Lee said. “It’s breaking down the kids’ inhibition. It’s talking about things that are clearly inappropriate for their age range, telling them parents may not be safe. ‘You can trust me, but don’t trust them. Here’s a private way to communicate with me. We can meet up in person outside of this meeting.’ And so it really is textbook predacious behavior and outside of the classroom, in any other situation, it would be criminal.”
“It is absolutely false to claim that the work I, SPLASH, and thousands of LGBTQIA+ youth organizations do, is predatory,” Kimberly Chambers told the Colorado Times Recorder. “We work in prevention and intervention and follow Shared Risk and Protective Factor framework or Positive Youth Development models. Our valuable non-profit missions are not ‘the same’ as very real crimes against children and cannot be compared.”
Another part of the lawsuit says that Lee and her husband, following the GSA incident, requested a gender support plan for their elementary-aged son, in order to “affirm his gender as a biological male” and “make sure he only uses the male restroom,” Lee told radio host Jimmy Lakey in May.
This request was denied by PSD, leading the plaintiffs to accuse the district of violating cisgender students’ civil rights by not treating them equally to trans students.
Of the four plaintiffs, Erin Lee has been the most outspoken, both on the case and in broader culture war discourse. She has developed a vocal social media presence, claiming among other things that “the assault on [her child’s] innocence and identity is happening everywhere.”
Beyond the lawsuit, Lee has become a fixture in Colorado’s parental rights discourse. Parental rights have become a common rallying cry among conservative education-focused groups such as Moms for Liberty, and is used to push back against school vaccine requirements, sex education, and lessons that reference LGBTQ topics, among others.
Moms for Liberty and other similar parental rights groups were classified as “anti-government extremist” groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in June of this year.
Lee is also a graduate of Leadership Program of the Rockies’ (LPR) 2023 class. LPR is Colorado’s preeminent training seminar for conservative activists and political candidates, training them in conservative principles and messaging, as well as providing networking opportunities with fellow right-wingers. Other previous graduates include Deborah Flora, a Denver radio host who has interviewed Lee on her show in the past. In recent years, LPR graduates have also included conspiracy-minded students who promote QAnon and other conspiracies tying LGBTQ people to sex trafficking.
Earlier this year, Lee went to the Colorado statehouse to testify in opposition to a bill that would create a mental health assessment program for CO public school students in grades six through 12. She and other opponents raised an outcry over the fact that students could opt-in to the assessment even if parents declined.
I’ve been working with Erin for the last year or so … she and her husband, John, are the real deal. God is really using them to spread the word on what’s happening.Former state Sen. Kevin Lundberg of Larimer County
“Look out for surveys. Beware of mental health counselors, mental health support. As much as we want that for our kids and they need it, the mental health system in our schools has been hijacked,” Lee said on the Dan Caplis Show in July. “We see mental health, assume malice is behind it, or, you know, there are dubious things you wouldn’t want your kids exposed to. Anti-bullying, anti-suicide. Gender support plans, is a big one that I’ve uncovered.”
A 2017 report showed that Colorado residents experience more mental health issues than residents in other states, something that rings particularly true among youth. Additionally, this only seems to have worsened since the onset of a global pandemic in 2020: a 2021 Healthy Kids Colorado survey showed that 69% of Colorado youth – both cisgender and transgender – experienced poor mental health, and 40% showed symptoms of depression.
In the past several months, Lee has made the rounds on conservative media, giving numerous interviews on Colorado’s talk radio circuit. Her case has been spotlighted in national right-wing outlets such as Fox News and The Epoch Times. The story has also been embraced by far-right Colorado politicians, including state Rep. Stephanie Luck (R-Penrose) and U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO).
The Truth & Liberty Coalition’s livecast is only one of many recent venues for Lee, but it stands out due to its overt political and religious extremism. The Christian fundamentalist group promotes the “Seven Mountain Mandate,” a doctrine that calls Christians to take control of seven key aspects of society, including family, education, and government.
Truth & Liberty was founded by Andrew Wommack, an influential televangelist based in Woodland Park. During a Truth & Liberty livecast last year, Wommack criticized mainstream media coverage of the deadly Club Q shooting in Colorado Springs, saying that outlets were afraid to “speak out against homosexuality.”
Wommack has also spoken openly about his efforts to organize a Christian Dominionist takeover of the Woodland Park School Board.
“Truth & Liberty, guys, is a separate organization, but we work really close with Andrew [Wommack] and his ministry, so we’re just really proud of that and delighted to be a part,” Harris said at the start of the livestream.
Introducing Lee on the program, Harris’ comments echoed many of Wommack’s stances on the LGBTQ community: he stated that queerness is not “normal” or “healthy.”
“Erin has been fighting for her daughter and not just for her daughter, but for all of our kids across this nation against the predatory and pernicious LGBT ideology that has invaded our public schools, an ideology that is targeting our children to indoctrinate them with the false belief that the vast majority of them, like she just said, are trans, are queer, that it’s normal, that it’s healthy, and that parents furthermore are the enemies and are dangerous,” Harris told the audience.
Lee said that there are some cases where a child is “legitimately” confused about gender, but did not specify what should be done in those cases. She also compared affirming a child’s gender identity to amputating their limbs.
“You know, my eight-year-old wants to be a pirate when he grows up, affirming that would be, you know, getting him peg leg surgery and removing his eye and going along with him becoming a pirate because that’s what he says he is in this moment,” Lee said. “So affirming is going along with whatever your child tells you they’re going through. And, you know, in some cases, what they’re going through is incredibly legitimate. And in the case of gender confusion, their confusion is real. But the reasons behind it need to be investigated.”
This misrepresents what gender affirmation usually entails, particularly at young ages. Puberty blockers are not typically prescribed until puberty actually starts, and are intended to give gender-questioning youth more time to consider their identity. Surgeries that remove or alter body parts have higher age requirements: mastectomy, aka breast removal or top surgery, is recommended for only ages 16 and up, and gender reassignment only for ages 18 and up.
Lee went on to claim that the California Legislature is trying to pass a bill that allows children to be removed from their families if parents do not affirm their gender. This claim, which has spread like wildfire among parental rights groups, is based on misinformation that has since been debunked.
A Public-Ed Scare?
When Harris discussed the changes made by the Christian conservative majority on Woodland Park’s school board – which is currently being sued by the Colorado Education Association for allegedly “chilling” teachers’ right to free speech – Lee lamented that similar candidates had failed to be elected in her area, blaming teacher’s unions and prominent Democratic figures, including Bill Gates and the Rockefeller family, for “pushing transgenderism” through their chosen candidates.
“So the union is putting out this propaganda and vilifying parents in an effort to get their candidates reelected. And it worked. All four candidates were elected, but they had money pouring in from the NEA [National Education Association], the AfT [American Federation of Teachers],” Lee said. “We actually had [NEA President] Becky Pringle here in Fort Collins rallying for these little school board candidates. The Polis family, that’s our governor, the Stryker family, the billionaires who are pushing transgenderism, the Obama Foundation, the Gates Foundation, the Rockefellers.”
Lee was adamant that due to this influence, every public school in the country should be viewed as potentially polluted by LGBTQ ideology and therefore “dangerous.”
“Well, I maintain that the only surefire way to protect your kids from this kind of indoctrination at school is to remove them from dangerous government schools. There is no district in the entire country where children are going to be safe from this kind of indoctrination,” Lee said.
Lee’s words echo those of many conservative activist groups, who use LGBTQ policies as the staging ground for a fight of larger scope: tearing down public education altogether. Like Lee, these activists push school choice programs that would divert funding from public schools into charter or private schools, where opponents say government education standards are far less regulated.
But even with her own children now in a charter school, Lee warned the audience that LGBTQ-sympathetic messages could be lurking around any corner, and said children should be “inoculated” against those messages – in the process, indirectly likening LGBTQ identity to a contagion.
“I mean, even if you remove them from government schools, it’s inevitable. It’s everywhere. It’s on the Disney Channel, it’s on Nickelodeon, it’s on commercials. I mean, it’s inevitable,” said Lee. “We do have to learn to inoculate them early and often, but I think we can be really careful with the language that we use with younger kids so that we’re not introducing them to something too soon.”
“You know, parents are afraid to fight back,” Lee said. “They’re afraid to talk about it, but they’re definitely afraid to go through the steps of lawfare. It’s costly, it’s time-consuming, it’s scary. And I’m willing to do it for all of us parents here in Colorado. And my hope is that we will set a national precedent for parental rights with this lawsuit.”
Lee is not the only one who hopes her case will set a national precedent. While Lee accuses prominent Democrats such as Jared Polis and Barack Obama of pushing LGBTQ ideology in schools, her lawsuit is being propped up by more wealthy and influential conservatives than just Truth & Liberty. Many of them have spent years working to roll back rights for the LGBTQ community.
Joshua C. Wilson, Chair of the University of Denver’s Political Science Department, said that lawsuits like this are nothing new. His book “Separate But Faithful” (2020) delves at length into Christian conservative litigation and how it became such a dominant force in American politics.
“I think the biggest thing the Christian right has been doing is trying to figure out how it can use the religion clauses as an aggressive legal tool to go after and undermine or undo policies that they disagree with,” Wilson told the Colorado Times Recorder. “… The litigation agenda mirrors the larger Christian right agenda. So now if you’re thinking about it, the big things are going to be, of course, around abortion and I would say anti-LGBTQ policy, but really it’s much more concentrated and focused on anti-trans efforts.”
One major force in the sphere of conservative lawfare has been the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an SPLC-designated hate group that has vocally opposed same-sex marriage and transgender medical care for youth and adults. One of its most prominent victories in this area came a few months ago, when the conservative U.S. Supreme Court majority ruled in 303 Creative v. Elenis that a Colorado antidiscrimination statute infringed on plaintiff Lorie Smith’s first amendment rights.
While ADF is not directly involved in the case against PSD, J. Brad Bergford, a Denver-based attorney who filed the lawsuit on Lee’s behalf, is a graduate of ADF’s Blackstone Legal Fellowship program. The Blackstone program trains Christian lawyers to “impact culture” and previously described its mission as seeking “to recover the robust Christendomic theology of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries.” Bergford’s profile at Illumine Legal, a Denver law firm, also lists him as “an Allied Attorney … with the Alliance Defending Freedom.”
“Blackstone offers like a summer intensive for law students to go to. And they get a couple things,” Wilson explained. “One is that they get trained in thinking like a Christian conservative lawyer. So it’s meant to supplement their law school education. And then the other is that they get hooked up with internships with folks who are, of course, networked into the Christian right.”
As mentioned previously, the America First Policy Institute is also involved in the lawsuit. Former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who serves as Chair of Constitutional Litigation Partnership at AFPI, is taking a prominent role in the case.
Bondi knows well the trials and tribulations of anti-LGBTQ lawfare – during her time as Attorney General, Bondi engaged in a protracted legal fight to uphold Florida’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, continuing to use taxpayer funds for the battle even after the ban was overturned. She is, like many other AFPI members, also a longtime political ally of Donald Trump, and in late 2021 was appointed to oversee his Make America Great Again Action super PAC.
“AFPI will always stand to protect our most vulnerable class: our children,” Bondi said in a news release. “It’s our responsibility to protect their innocence and stop those who are abusing their taxpayer-funded position to force a radical political agenda onto our nation’s youth. The lawsuit seeks to return the power to parents by reinforcing their constitutional right to govern their child’s education and protect their future.”
Though it is uncertain how the case will progress from here (Lee said PSD filed a motion to dismiss), Wilson said that the lawsuit does not need to make it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to have a cultural impact: aside from drawing the resources of the school district, smaller cases can still set wider precedents.
“The Supreme Court hears a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of court cases. And so much more significant policy happens at lower levels. And so any good litigation effort is going to concentrate on kind of A-Team cases, which are the ones that you’re hoping are going to go to something like the U.S. Supreme Court. But also, you could say, B-Team cases,” Wilson said. “They need the small local cases to happen, and that’s in order to implement policy in smaller areas. To make sure things are enforced. And then the other thing that happens at the local level is experimentation around what kind of cases might work.”
Another prominent Colorado conservative is working closely with Lee outside of the lawsuit: Kevin Lundberg, a former state senator who, despite not currently holding any office, is still deeply involved in the Colorado GOP’s inner workings, and is currently leading fundraising efforts for the party’s suit to lock Colorado’s many unaffiliated voters out of party primary elections.
Lundberg’s staunch belief in his Christian conservative values has pitted him against LGBTQ rights throughout his political career. In 2012, he voted against a bill to legalize civil unions; in 2018, he sponsored the “Live & Let Live Act” to create religious exemptions for Colorado’s antidiscrimination policy – in other words, allowing people or groups to discriminate against others if they believe their faith tells them doing so is necessary.
Lee said that she and Lundberg first met at a pastor meeting in Fort Collins. Together, they are working on a documentary titled “Art Club,” which stages Lee’s highly-publicized story against national parental rights discourse. Lee told Truth & Liberty’s audience that the film “ties in expert advice and comments, and really just paints the picture for other families in a way that they can share this story with anyone.”
The documentary is currently in the process of being crowdfunded via GiveSendGo. Since its start, it has raised more than $6,000 of its $10,000 goal, with some of the larger donations coming from the Larimer County chapter of Moms for Liberty, as well as Lori Thompson, secretary of the D49 School Board in Douglas County.
Earlier this month, the page was updated to state that the film itself had been fully funded, and any further donations would be directed to legal costs for the lawsuit against PSD.
“I’ve been working with Erin for the last year or so on that documentary she mentioned,” Lundberg said, calling into the livestream. “And I want to assure you and all your viewers that she and her husband, John, are the real deal. God is really using them to spread the word on what’s happening.” [CTR emphasis]
Chambers emphasized that she does not believe that the intolerant Christian nationalism pushed by groups such as Truth & Liberty and ADF is the norm in faith communities.
“It is also important to me that we do not separate the queer and trans community from the faith community in these conversations,” Chambers said. “There are more faith spaces in our community that affirm and protect LGBTQIA+ folks than there are that don’t. … SPLASH welcomes youth and families of all faith backgrounds, we recognize that youth and families are intersectional in many ways.”
Neither Lee nor Lundberg responded to emails requesting comment. This story will be updated with any response received.
Watch the full Truth & Liberty livestream here.