Conservative law group involved in drafting of GOP parental bill of rights legislation

By: - January 12, 2024 5:30 am

WILL attorneys Cory Brewer and Luke Berg both provided testimony about AB 510 at a public hearing which lasted for almost four hours in November 2023. (Screenshot via WisEye)

A Republican bill that would establish a “parental bill of rights” in Wisconsin and encourage  parents to file lawsuits when those rights are violated was molded by the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), according to emails shared with the Wisconsin Examiner. 

The bill — AB 510 — would establish 16 specific “fundamental rights” for parents related to their child’s religion, medical care, records and education and establish a way for parents that claim these rights have been violated to sue. The Assembly Family Law committee voted to approve the bill in a 6-3 vote without any discussion on Thursday. 

Emails obtained by A Better Wisconsin Together via open records request and shared with the Examiner show that the conservative law center was directly involved in the drafting of the bill. 

Throughout the drafting of the bill, the office of Rep. Robert Wittke (R-Racine), the Assembly lead on the bill, was in frequent contact with the conservative law group discussing everything from potential edits to the bill, finding a Senate lead author for the bill, answering a question from an outside group and scheduling a public hearing.

On several occasions, WILL Associate Counsel Cory Brewer provided suggested edits to Wittke’s office.

“I’m working now on possible additions to the draft bill to make it even more robust,” Brewer wrote to Wittke’s office in February 2023. 

Some of the rights specified in the bill include the right to determine the religion of a child; to determine the names and pronouns used for the child while at school; to determine the type of school or educational setting the child attends; the right to to review instructional materials; the right to “timely notice” when a controversial subject will be taught or discussed in the child’s classroom and the right to opt out of a class or instructional materials at the child’s school for reasons based on either religion or personal conviction. 

Some of the edits that Brewer suggested that ended up in the draft bill included expanding a reference to “medical care” in the bill to cover the right “to be notified of each health care service, including vaccinations immunizations, offered at the child’s school and the right to withhold consent or decline any specific service, unless otherwise specified by law or court order” and “the right to timely notice by the child’s school of any surveys or evaluations conducted in the child’s classroom that would reveal” certain information about the child or their family including political affiliations, mental or psychological problems and more. 

Wittke’s office also turned to WILL, rather than the nonpartisan Wisconsin Legislative Council, to answer some technical questions about the bill from a party outside of the Legislature. 

“Cory, Would you like to help us address these questions? I can certainly have Legislative Council help as well but wanted to reach out to you first,” Griffiths wrote. Brewer provided an answer and offered to discuss via the phone if it was needed. 

Republicans have pushed for parents’ “bill of rights” legislation across the country in recent years, saying that parents need greater transparency and control in their children’s lives. “Parental rights” laws have passed in several states including Florida and Virginia. Opponents have said however that the bills could harm the educational environment and LGBTQ youth. 

DPI Superintendent Jill Underly told the Wisconsin Examiner this week that the bill is part of a  larger pattern of attacks on public schools and democracy itself and that it’s “designed to shut down discussion and creates an environment of fear for our educators because it inserts them into a culture war that no one should be fighting in the first place.”

The Wisconsin Legislature passed a similar bill in 2022, but Gov. Tony Evers vetoed it because he said it aimed to “divide our schools.” 

As WILL and Wittke’s office discussed edits for the reintroduced version of the bill, they also went back and forth searching for an author before Sen. Van Wanggard (R-Racine) agreed to become the Senate coauthor of the bill.

“Just wanted to follow up with you about a senate lead for the parental bill of rights bill. Were you working on this or was I supposed to find someone?” Griffiths asked Brewer in an email.

Brewer responded that her notes said Sen. John Jagler (R-Watertown) or Sen. Patrick Testin (R-Stevens Point) were possibilities. At the end of August, Griffiths notified Brewer that Sen. Jesse James (R-Altoona) had declined to lead on the bill and they had reached out to Wanggard’s office. 

Griffiths confirmed in early September that Wanggard would lead on the bill and asked if it worked for Brewer if they pushed the bill out for co-sponsors the following week.  

WILL has filed lawsuits against counties, cities, villages and towns across Wisconsin in recent years, including many involving “parental rights.” Most recently, WILL along with the Alliance Defending Freedom sued Kettle Moraine School District over its policy of allowing students to change their names and gender pronouns without parental consent. Waukesha County Circuit Judge Michael Maxwell ruled in October that the policy violates the right of parents to make medical decisions for their children.

At one point during the almost four hour hearing which was streamed on WisconsinEye, Luke Berg, a WILL attorney, and Brewer provided testimony on the bill and started by focusing on the provision that gives parents the right to decide what names and pronouns are used for their children.

“Imagine discovering one day that for months, school staff have been treating your daughter as if she is your son or your son, as if he is your daughter without you knowing about it. I’ve received that call from half a dozen Wisconsin parents in the last few years,” Berg said. “Unfortunately, this is happening more and more frequently because the number of children struggling with this has exploded in recent years… The Legislature has a chance to correct this issue statewide to protect parents and their children and to do so as other states have done.” 

Lucy Ripp, communications director at A Better Wisconsin Together, said in a statement to the Examiner that it’s clear that WILL is “an extremism grifter, continuously attacking public schools, teachers, and LGBTQ+ youth.” She suggested that WILL could stand to benefit from AB 510 because of the recourse mechanism that is included in the bill.

Under the Wisconsin bill, a parent or guardian denied one of the rights in the bill could bring a civil action against a government body or official. Parents who successfully assert a claim could recover declaratory relief, injunctive relief, reasonable attorney’s fees and costs and up to $10,000 for any other appropriate relief.

“That they would work to change state law in order to profiteer off of it and create more division among parents, students, and educators for their own personal benefit is both unseemly and appalling,” Ripp said. 

The public hearing on the bill was scheduled around WILL’s calendar as well. 

According to the emails, committee chair Rep. Donna Rozar considered scheduling the hearing for Oct. 24, 2023 until a Wittke staffer asked Brewer about whether that date would work for her.

“Sometime in November would be preferred if that is an option,” Brewer wrote in an email. Once a Wittke staffer confirmed they would check with Rozar, Brewer wrote back asking if it would be possible to receive two weeks’ notice so WILL could prepare and work with parents. 

Wittke’s staffer confirmed on Oct. 20, 2023 that the hearing would be held on Nov. 8, 2023.

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Baylor Spears
Baylor Spears

Baylor Spears is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner. She’s previously written for the Minnesota Reformer and Washingtonian Magazine. A Tennessee-native, she graduated with a degree in journalism from Northwestern University in June 2022.

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