By Emily Le Coz
TUPELO, Mississippi (Reuters) - A record number of schools will participate in a national anti-bullying program, organizers said, despite a conservative Christian group's push for a boycott of the event on the grounds it would "promote the homosexual lifestyle in public schools."
Nearly 3,000 schools nationwide - about 30 percent more than last year - will take part on Tuesday in "Mix It Up at Lunch Day," an annual event that encourages students to sit by someone in the cafeteria with whom they would not normally socialize.
The initiative is organized by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a rights group that defines Mix It Up Day as an opportunity to teach students tolerance. The center makes no reference to homosexuality in its program overview, listing it only as a sample topic among dozens of others that schools can chose to discuss.
It is the first time the program, now in its 11th year, has been condemned by the American Family Association. In an October 1 alert to supporters, the group based in Tupelo, Mississippi, called the event "a nationwide push to promote the homosexual lifestyle in public schools."
The organization urged parents to boycott the event by keeping children home from school that day.
Bryan Fischer, the group's director of issue analysis, said the law center was concealing the "real agenda" of the lunch program from parents and schools.
"That's what makes this particularly insidious," Fischer said. "I use poisoned Halloween candy as an illustration. This looks harmless on the surface, but you don't realize how toxic it is."
Maureen Costello, director of the law center's Teaching Tolerance project, denied any hidden agenda.
"That's just imaginary," said Costello, who noted the program was first designed as a way for elementary school students to make new friends.
"It's most popular in elementary and middle schools and to help kids not judge each other by the kind of clothes they wear, music they listen to, sports they play, families they came from," she said.
The SPLC has received more than 1,000 angry emails from American Family Association supporters and calls from some 200 schools that also were inundated with questions and threats after the push for a boycott.
'NOT GOING TO BE INTIMIDATED'
Some schools asked to have their names removed from the law center's website to end the harassment, but more than 300 new schools signed up, Costello said.
"I think in many ways the AFA campaign backfired, because a lot of schools stepped up to the plate and said, 'We're not going to be intimidated by this,'" she said.
Among the schools that fielded phone calls was St. Dominic School for Boys in Memphis, Tennessee, school dean John Murphy said.
"We have participated in Mix It Up Day for probably 10 years now," Murphy said. "These bigots, I don't know much about them, somehow they painted it to be a homosexual mix-it-up day. As a Catholic school, we don't promote the homosexual lifestyle, but we certainly teach our children tolerance."
St. Dominic still plans to rearrange its cafeteria and assign children different seats for one day to foster new friendships, Murphy said.
An online community called Faithful America started a petition to protest the American Family Association's actions and to try to convince schools that some Christians support Mix It Up Day, said its director, Michael Sherrard.
Nearly 14,000 people have signed the petition, just shy of the 15,000 goal the group set.
"This kind of thing happens because hate groups like the American Family Association get away with passing themselves off as representatives of Christianity," Sherrard said. "And they're just not."
The SPLC designated the American Family Association as a hate group in 2010. Fischer said the law center deserved that label instead.
"They are out to destroy us," Fischer said. "That makes them the hate group. That makes them the bullies."
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Peter Cooney)