December 2012 Church & State | People & Events

The American Family Association (AFA) in October came out swinging against a program that seeks to reduce bullying in schools by urging students to eat lunch with someone they don’t know.

The program, “Mix It Up at Lunch Day,” took place Oct. 30. It was launched by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) 11 years ago. The idea is for students in public schools to eat lunch with someone they don’t know well in the hope that they will make a connection. Ultimately, the program seeks to reduce bullying in schools.

Although the program has been lauded as positive by many educators, it came under immediate fire from the AFA, which insisted that the event was a manifestation of the “gay agenda.”

The New York Times reported that the Tupelo, Miss.-based Religious Right group urged parents to demand that their school drop out of the event or keep their kids home on Oct. 30. The AFA labeled the event “a nationwide push to promote the homosexual lifestyle in public schools”

In fact, none of the activities suggested for Mix It Up at Lunch Day addressed gay students. The SPLC told The Times it conceived the day as a blow against school cliques. The idea, the SPLC’s Maureen Costello said, is to get young people associating with someone they might know little about and expand their social circles.

“We’ve become used to the idea of lunatic fringe attacks,” Costello told The Times, “but this one was complete misrepresentation.”

Costello said the program was designed in part to reduce bullying in school. Apparently, that was enough to raise hackles at the AFA. In recent years, the AFA and other Religious Right groups have taken the lead in attacking school-based anti-bullying programs, which they insist will be twisted to take away the rights of fundamentalist Christian students who might be critical of homosexuality.

“Anti-bullying legislation is exactly the same,” Bryan Fischer, the AFA’s director of issue analysis, told The Times. “It’s just another thinly veiled attempt to promote the homosexual agenda. No one is in favor of anyone getting bullied for any reason, but these anti-bullying policies become a mechanism for punishing Christian students who believe that homosexual behavior is not something that should be normalized.”

The AFA’s protest had an effect. In the wake of an AFA email blitz, the SPLC reported that about 200 schools decided to drop out of Mix It Up at Lunch Day.

But some school officials stood firm and chose instead to combat the AFA’s distortions. Among them was Kevin Brady, who runs the Avon Grove Charter School in West Grove, Pa.

The school serves about 1,600 students, including a large number of special-needs kids. Some of those youngsters felt isolated, Brady said, and Mix It Up at Lunch Day was helpful to them.

Brady told The Times that the AFA’s message had “absolutely no resemblance to what we do.” He said the school explained the program to parents and that he didn’t expect any students to be kept home on Oct. 30.

“I think they feel they have been taken for a bit of a ride,” Brady said of the parents who reacted to the AFA’s email.

The AFA’s reaction may have been driven in part by its dislike for the SPLC. Earlier this year, the SPLC issued a report highly critical of Religious Right groups that spread homophobia. The AFA was among those listed.

The SPLC designated the AFA a “hate group,” a label it also gave to several AFA allies, including the Family Research Council and Americans for Truth About Homosexuality.