A national campaign encouraging kids to befriend other kids who are different from them has come under fire from a conservative family group, which claims a pro-gay agenda is being foisted upon American children.
The American Family Association has taken issue with the annual "Mix It Up" Day organized by Teaching Tolerance, the anti-bullying project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance, said the group started the national campaign 11 years ago, organizing it so that schools can participate on their own terms by encouraging students to sit with those they don't normally hang out with during lunch.
"Hey, the cafeteria is in fact where kids tend to self-segregate," she said. "We're trying to get them past the idea that you have to distrust people in another group. So we started Mix It Up Day. For one day, kids will be assigned to randomly sit with other people who they wouldn't normally sit with."
Costello said that thousands of schools and millions of children have participated in the program over the past 11 years, and another 2,500 schools have signed up to participate this year.
But schools that had signed up with the SPLC to host Mix It Up Day this year have become the target of a campaign that views SPLC as a "fanatical pro-homosexual group."
"The Southern Poverty Law Center is using this project to bully-push its gay agenda, and at the same time intimidate and silence students who have a Biblical view of homosexuality," the AFA wrote on its website on Oct. 1.
The group called for parents to keep their children home from school on Oct. 30, the national day when schools can implement Mix It Up activities. They also prompted their supporters to write letters and place phone calls to participating schools encouraging them to pull the plug on Mix It Up Day plans.
"The problem is pushing the normalization of homosexuality in schools," said Bryan Fischer, director of issue analysis for the AFA. "You see the same thing happening with anti-bullying legislation. It winds up being used as a hammer to silence Christian students who oppose normalization of homosexuality. If you say a word criticizing homosexual behavior, you get accused of hate speech."
"This is a thinly-veiled effort to promote homosexuality," he said.
The group said the "radical" SPLC was using the anti-bullying campaign as a "gay indoctrination" program.
"It was just so bizarre," Costello said of the AFA's criticism of Mix It Up Day. "You could look through every page of Mix It Up (materials) on diversity, and the only reference to LGBT issues is that at some point we have an activity that helps kids end their use of comments like 'don't be a retard' and 'that's so gay.' That is it. That is the sum total."
"We don't tell schools what to do on mix it up day. We suggest activities, none of which have to do with sexual orientations. We used to focus on divisions of race and social class, but now we encourage schools to focus on what they're own school issues are," she said.
The AFA has asked the SPLC to publish a disclaimer making it clear that Mix It Up Day "should not be construed to imply the endorsement or support of homosexual behavior," Fischer said.
The Teaching Tolerance program countered with their own publicity materials, pointing out that AFA has been named a "hate group" by SPLC for their views on homosexuality, she said. Fischer called that an "entirely false designation."
Some 200 schools have asked to be removed from a public list of participating Mix It Up schools since the AFA launched their protest, Costello said.
In the same two-week span, 180 schools have signed up to participate, she said.