Rep. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, leads the crowd through the pledge of allegiance during a rally in support of parental rights at the Montana Capitol on Oct. 1, 2021.
The same day Senate Bill 400 — a bill limiting the government’s ability to interfere with parental rights — went into effect, nearly 100 people gathered outside the state Capitol on Friday to hear lawmakers and citizens promote parental rights.
“The interests and role of parents and the care, custody, and control of their children are both implicit in the concept of ordered liberty and deeply rooted in our nation’s history and tradition,” said Sen. Theresa Manzella at the rally with a sea of supporters behind her.
The Hamilton Republican is the sponsor of SB400.
SB400 passed in the most recent legislative session on party lines with Republican support. It allows parents to sue the government if they feel their parental rights are violated, and the bill is at the center of two lawsuits filed against Gallatin and Missoula county schools that have chosen to require masking.
Filed by parents and StandUp Montana, the lawsuits argue the mandates will violate the bill on its effective date of Friday. StandUp Montana describes itself as a group that formed to support civil action against schools that are “unlawfully masking our children.” Both cases are still pending.
“The bill isn’t a slam dunk; you still have to take the government to court and win,” Manzella said.
The central issue for the attendees was frustration about the battles between parents and school boards over mask mandates in schools. Speakers warned of the dangers of masking and encouraged people to stand up to their local school boards.
“I will fight for parental rights. And we will protect our children together. But you got to want it, and you’ve got to own it. And you’ve got to take the school boards to task,” Manzella said.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines call for universal indoor masking in schools for all students age 2 and older, teachers and staff regardless of vaccination status.
Elsie Arntzen, Montana’s superintendent of public instruction, walked the line between supporting parental rights and local school boards.
“Local control is the heart of our public school system,” Arntzen said. “Local control demands respect. Local control, though, is respect. When parents are respected.”
During her speech, Artnzen also announced that she is in the process of drafting a rule that would allow parents to opt their children out of specific policies. Arntzen would not directly comment on whether the rule was directed at masks.
“I believe right now, the most important thing is to communicate … and we discussed these opportunities to enhance individual students in their learning, through opt-out and through all these other opportunities that parents have more of a choice in education and choice can be offered to school as well,” said the superintendent, a Republican.
At the same time as parental rights advocates railed against mask mandates and overbearing school boards, a counter-protest was taking place on the other side of the Capitol.
Katie Loveland, who organized the counter-protest, said she felt the need for the event when she saw that Arntzen was supporting a faction of parents rather than local school boards.
“I just feel like this is a space where I can speak with some authority and some experience,” she said. “The evidence is very strong that public health measures are needed right now. COVID doesn’t care about our rights. I would love to exert my rights as a parent, but COVID won’t listen.”
Loveland has one kid at Jefferson Elementary and another at Helena Middle School. She spent 15 years as a public health professional and now runs a policy consultancy called Loveland Consulting.
“It really pains me to see the politicization of this virus — again, the virus doesn’t care what your politics are,” she said. “I’ve seen even in my parent groups a fractionalization … over masks and vaccines.”
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