Oct. 24 2012 12:00 AM

The American Family Association is paranoid about a one-day event in schools that promotes tolerance. One local principal says AFA couldn't more misguided.

For the past 11 years, Oct. 30 has been a day for promoting tolerance in schools across the country. It’s called Mix It Up at Lunch Day, and the goal is to have K-12 students eat with peers whom they likely wouldn’t do so with any other day of the year. The point of mixing social circles is to prevent bullying and promote open-mindedness.

But this year is different. The ultra-conservative, Evangelical Bible-belters at the American Family Association are trying to co-opt the event as a symbol of liberal social policies and a beacon for the homosexual agenda. Sigh.

The AFA’s campaign has gotten the attention of The New York Times, “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central and parents of students from hundreds of districts. Some parents have successfully convinced school districts to cancel the event, which generally takes place during a single lunch period.

Cole Academy, a charter school on West Mt. Hope Avenue in Lansing, is one of two schools City Pulse found in the Lansing area that participate. Principal Brian Shaughnessy called Mix It Up Day “benign” and a “tolerance-building activity.”

“It has nothing to do with whatever agenda is going on in The New York Times article,” said Shaughnessy, referring to claims by the American Family Association. Shaughnessy is in his second year at Cole. Before that, he was familiar with the event at a middle school in Connecticut where he worked.

Wilcox Elementary School in the Holt Public Schools District also participates in Mix It Up Day. Principal Traci Heuhs could not be reached for comment.

Mix It Up Day was started by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group based in Alabama, as part of a project called “Teaching Tolerance.” More than 2,700 schools throughout the country have committed to holding the event this year, 250 of which are in Michigan, according to Teaching Tolerance.

Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance, said while “a couple hundred” schools have opted out of the event since AFA launched its campaign, about 400 new schools have joined in. “More schools are involved now than when AFA denounced the event,” she said.

Nonetheless, Costello is “appalled” by the AFA campaign, which started as an email to the group’s supporters. “I don’t like when people are dishonest. I worry about marginalized kids in communities that are not terribly diverse. The message they’re getting is: Bow under pressure and you just better not be different.”

The Times notes that the fight between the law center and the AFA points to underlying issues between the two groups: The AFA, along with neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers, are designated as a hate group by the law center.

The Michigan chapter of the AFA did not respond to requests for comment. But Bryan Fischer, director of issue analysis for government and public policy for the national AFA, says: “We are a truth group, not a hate group.”

Fischer said the notification went out after hearing from AFA members that the event “was being used as a wedge to get the homosexual agenda in schools. We looked at it and agreed.” He said any initiative out of the Southern Poverty Law Center may “compromise the moral health of the student population” — this from a guy who says: “Homosexual behavior is as risky to human health as intravenous drug use. It should not be encouraged or promoted.”

For all of the event’s nationwide attention, Shaughnessy sees Mix It Up Day as a “one-shot deal” event that’s “rather harmless” because changing a school climate of intimidation or bullying involves “things you do all year.”

“It’s a token gesture of tolerance,” he said. “Anyone who thinks any one-day program is going to affect how students behave is just ridiculous.”