What DeSantis’s Newton pit stop — and ensuing protests — tell us about the Massachusetts Family Institute’s growing influence
Massachusetts Family Institute and its associated organizations make use of tax-exemption rules to advocate for restricting sex education, limiting LGBTQ+ rights, and promoting anti-abortion legislation — all in Boston’s backyard.
On the evening of Oct. 13, crowds of protesters gathered outside the Newton Marriott to stand against the Massachusetts Family Institute, a conservative nonprofit holding their annual fundraising banquet inside the hotel. Partway through, they were met with a surprise: Florida Governor and 2024 presidential hopeful for the GOP nomination Ron DeSantis was there on the scene to speak at the event.
Though the protesters heard whispers that DeSantis might be in the area following his campaign stop in New Hampshire earlier that week, they weren’t necessarily expecting him. “We saw the devil himself,” said E wryly in an Oct. 26 interview with the Justice. E, who declined to give their full name in the interest of protecting their identity for personal safety, is a member and organizer of the Stonewall Liberation Organization, which spearheaded the Oct. 13 protest. As a Massachusetts organization composed of members fighting for queer and trans self determination, E explained that much of the SLO’s work encompasses showing up en-masse to stand up against discriminatory and anti-queer presences and policies. By E’s count over 100 people — including a marching band — were present at the Oct. 13 protest.
“It [the SLO] started in March, and really grew out of a collection of organizers who had been doing defenses of LGBTQ+ events … we’re not interested in reformism,” E said. “We stand in solidarity with oppressed and exploited people everywhere.”
The Waltham chapter of Food Not Bombs made dinner — a fruit salad, a lentil soup, and a pasta dish — for the Stonewall Liberation Organization and other groups and protestors who showed up at the Newton Marriott. “This was our first event together,” said Jamie Krikeles, a Waltham resident and organizer with Food Not Bombs, in an Oct. 29 interview with the Justice. “It was nice to have this event [the dinner] in our backyard.” By her count, Jamie said over 75 plates of fresh food were served.
As a lead organizer for the protest, E emphasized that this was not their first rodeo. The SLO has been present in the defense of drag story hours, and this past summer, the SLO also ran a campaign against a Boston coffee shop operating as what they called a “missionary front” for Public Church Boston, which offered conversion therapy services. Due to the pressure the shop later shut down.
For participants like E, DeSantis’ unexpected presence only solidified just how high profile the Massachusetts Family Institute had become in the national political playing field. “It’s a wakeup call to people in Massachusetts in general,” E said. “While this is a blue state people shouldn't get too comfortable. Ron DeSantis was in their backyard, and they didn’t even know.”
The MFI: A conservative Massachusetts nonprofit with a consistently-growing revenue
Founded in 1991, MFI is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization — meaning that because their purposes are religious they are tax-exempt, and importantly, donations are tax deductible. Though much of their focus is legislative — advocating against the ROE Act which safeguards abortions, linking a legislator search engine on their website, and hosting events like Pro-Family Lobby Day — nonprofits can lose their tax-exempt status if the majority of their programming is attempting to influence legislation. As listed on their website, the rest of their activities encompass legal advocacy, research, and education on the following topics:
“Safeguarding the rights of churches and religious organizations to operate free from government interference;
Championing the rights of all individuals to practice and live according to their faith;
Strengthening, protecting, and preserving a Christian view of marriage as embodying the complementarity of male and female;
Affirming the inherent differences between men and women as a reflection of God’s glory to be embraced, not a weakness to be overcome;
Recognizing the male and female sexes as a real and enduring part of a person’s created nature, not an imaginary social construct;
Protecting life, including the lives of the unborn, the elderly, and the most vulnerable among us;
Promoting parents’ rights regarding the education and welfare of their children;
Safeguarding the innocence of childhood as central to children’s healthy spiritual and mental development.”
MFI lists five organizations as their “allies,” all of which share the same general mission of theological social reform through advocacy. Family Research Council is a nonprofit research organization which was designated as a hate group by Southern Poverty Law Center in 2010. In 2020, FRC applied for and was granted consideration as a “church” by the IRS under the claim that it conducts weddings, baptisms, and funerals. This designation excuses it from public inspection through submission of an annual Form 990 and has become a recent trend among evangelical nonprofits.
In an Oct. 28 interview with the Justice, C, a leftist organizer who is immensely active in Waltham local politics and declined to be identified using their full name for personal safety concerns, said of MFI and their allies: “What I've learned from following them is you can do whatever you want in America as long as you call it religion.”
E agreed with this sentiment, explaining that although conversion therapy on minors is illegal for mental health practitioners to perform in Massachusetts under bill H.140 — known in some conservative contexts as the Counseling Ban — loopholes allow pastors to offer it as a service. E said that this loophole is one that MFI supports. On the MFI site under “Transgenderism: Parent Resource Guide,” a statement reads: “This Counseling Ban [H.140] does not (yet) apply to pastors or other unlicensed counselors … If you need help finding the therapy you or your child needs on issues of sexual expression or gender identity, please contact us for a list of pro-family referrals.”
Another ally, Focus on the Family, is a fundamentalist organization which is primarily known for lobbying against LGBTQ+ rights, and have been accused by several prominent scientists of misrepresenting data in their advocacy. They also declared church status in 2017.
Alliance Defending Freedom, a free law firm that works to expand Christianity in public schools and spaces, outlaw abortion, and restrict LGBTQ+ rights, is MFI’s most prominent ally. As Amy Littlefield of “The Nation” wrote, “The organization writes model bills and funds and litigates court cases that seek to weaponize a narrow interpretation of religious freedom in service of a whole host of conservative priorities.” One of those model bills was vastly consequential for Dobbs v. Jackson, which overruled Roe v. Wade. They also litigated the infamous Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case, which ruled that a cake shop owner did not have to serve a gay couple if her religious beliefs precluded it.
ADF is extraordinarily connected in right-wing politics, with their president Mike Farris serving on former Vice President Mike Pence’s advisory board for his nonprofit Advancing American Freedom. Farris attended several White House events during Donald Trump’s presidency, notably to celebrate Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination for the Supreme Court. According to IRS forms, both MFI and ADF’s assets and revenue have grown considerably in the last two years, with the latter’s assets skyrocketing 60% from $48.7 million in 2020. IRS regulations prevent the disclosure of donors’ information on tax documents, but ADF is funded mostly by extremely large donors – just one donated $31 million over two years. They’ve also been very active in the prevention of donors’ names being published, even winning a Supreme Court case that ended California's requirement for non-profits to release the names of their major donors, Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Bonta in 2021. Along with the hiding of executive salaries, keeping donor information obscured is thought to be the reason behind applying for church status among nonprofits.
“We finally hit the map — we’ve got both the protesters and Governor DeSantis here”
The press covering DeSantis’ visit to the MFI and what went on inside the Marriott was minimal. One of the only articles published about the event — which included a transcript of DeSantis’s statements — was put out by the NewBostonPost, a conservative media organization that shares a founder, Robert Bradley, with MFI.
In a speech delivered inside the Marriott as reported by the NewBostonPost, DeSantis to laughter said that he wasn’t giving a campaign speech because “I know this is a non-profit.” But he said, “I appreciate you guys for what you’re doing. As somebody that’s spent some time in a very hostile environment in Cambridge, Massachusetts [during his undergrad at Harvard University] … I know it’s not easy. But you’re doing the right thing, and you have my support.”
In a response to a request for comment about DeSantis’ arrival at the fundraising banquet, Ian Huyett, the MFI president, told the Justice in an Oct. 24 email correspondence that “[the] MFI does not endorse Ron DeSantis or any other candidate. However, we agree with Governor DeSantis’ commitment to free speech, parental rights, and to ensuring that female athletes are not forced to compete against biological males.”
Under IRS federal law, 501(c)(3) organizations like MFI cannot “directly or indirectly participate in, or intervene in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” (DeSantis has stated that if he becomes president, he hopes to “eliminate the IRS”). If they do so, they can lose their tax-exempt status; hence the disclaimers from both DeSantis and MFI on his appearance at the banquet. Still, when introducing DeSantis, MFI founder Robert Bradley stated that “The governor has been a fierce supporter of the values we at MFI have been fighting for. For the family, for religious liberty, for taking the horrible sex ed courses out of the classrooms, I can think we all agree what a great job he’s done as governor of Florida.”
To applause, the speaker continued: “We are absolutely thrilled that he’s here tonight, and that he’s wanting to show his support for Massachusetts Family Institute, especially with all these protesters outside. It’s great. We finally hit the map, and we got both the protesters and Governor DeSantis here.”
A network across Massachusetts
While MFI utilizes a troubling financial network that shares ties with extremely consequential legislative groups, their main weapon is community. “People who own their own businesses, especially blue collar businesses, have conservative audiences so they want to be associated with right wing things. If these small business owners give money to MFI, they think their customers might be impressed by that,” C told the Justice. The larger scale political web that makes the ADF so influential functions on a smaller level in local communities, creating an imperative to participate. C continued, “There's a community of conservative Christians that's very big and very powerful – if you have credibility in that community, people want to help you out, people want to hire you.”
Strengthening this imperative is thoughtful outreach by the MFI, which identifies the most inflammatory issues and sends strong messages to community members using fear and anger. Their “Education” page warns that “our public schools have become a primary battleground in the culture war, with sex-obsessed activists using them to indoctrinate students with shocking and unhealthy agendas,” and links to examples of “Pornographic ‘Comprehensive Sexuality Education’ in Massachusetts Public Schools.”
C says this is all very purposeful. “The guideline [for sex education in public schools] would say teachers should use appropriate scientific names when discussing genitals for all grades. And then they would interpret that as teachers will talk about genitals with kindergartners and that's what they put out to scare their audience. And they were basically using that as a name to grow their email list. They just want to get everyone's email and they see this as a good issue to build their membership.”
The growth of that online base, and how MFI chooses to engage with it, can have dangerous consequences. In January of this year, on their since-deactivated Facebook page, current Director of Communications Mary Ellen Siegler posted about an upcoming drag queen story hour at the Taunton Public Library. She published the real name of the drag performer, the library’s main phone number, the youth services phone number, and the director’s email address, and explicitly urged followers to voice concerns. The event, which had not been advertised anywhere except the library’s calendar for safety reasons, was then disrupted by NSC 131, one of Massachusetts’ most active neo-Nazi groups.
“They do have a legislative focus, but what got me focused on them was instances where they were calling out individual people and individual events and putting them in danger. And that, to me, was sort of the proof that they're not just a political group, they're a hate group,” C said.
DeSantis has been very vocal throughout his political career about his stances on LGBTQ+ rights, sex education in public schools, and religious freedom in public spaces. But his visit to MFI is yet another reminder not only of the staunchness and extremity of those stances, but also of how widely they permeate seemingly liberal areas. Of DeSantis’ visit to the Marriott on Oct. 13, C said, “I think the significance of it was they were saying very clearly that they're on the same page.”
Pushback, on the 13th and beyond
But as much as MFI has garnered support, its movement into the spotlight has also garnered increased pressure from coalitions of organizers, like the groups E and C belong to. And while the MFI might be networking, so are the groups working against it.
Krikeles added that Food Not Bombs Waltham will always be available to help individuals stand up against organizations like MFI through providing meals to organizers and protesters. “If you are looking to do a protest in the Waltham area, and you would like Food Not Bombs to cater your event, we do serves. We also do serves on Sundays at 2 pm,” she said.
“We had awesome speakers, and a lot of coalition groups,” E said of the Oct. 13 protest. “It was a lot of work to figure it out, and we organized for, like, six weeks leading up to it. It was good; it was positive. We were able to disrupt the event. The fact that Ron can come here but can’t announce his presence … it says something. It exposes what the Massachusetts Family Institute really is.”