CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For the past 11 years, more than 2,000 American schools have held "Mix It Up at Lunch Day" -- a time when pupils don't cluster in their usual dining cliques, but instead sit with minority students, handicapped youngsters and others who are different.
The project is sponsored by the Southern Poverty Law Center (whose founder once delivered a W.E. "Ned" Chilton III Leadership Lecture in Charleston) to foster understanding and acceptance among dissimilar groups. A "Teaching Tolerance" effort, it's designed to reduce cruel student bullying of "outcast" youths.
But an uproar arose this year. A fundamentalist organization, the American Family Association, called the special day "a nationwide push to promote the homosexual lifestyle." The AFA urged evangelical families to file school protests and keep their children home during the late October event.
As a result, about 250 schools canceled Mix It Up Day this year. Administrators apparently decided to avoid problems and conflict.
Laurie Higgins of the AFA said: "You can't present only one side in the single most controversial debate in America today." She means that fundamentalist families and their children should be entitled to declare publicly that gays are evil and must be shunned. The AFA evidently wants evangelical youths to have freedom to taunt and denounce classmates they suspect of homosexuality.
A similar clash occurs in some state legislatures. <I>The Chicago Tribune<P> says Illinois lawmakers pondered a bill to reduce school bullying, but evangelical opposition killed it. Democratic legislator Kelly Cassidy said: "What they want is an exception for bullying gay kids -- and that's just not going to happen."
What a mess. America's free speech allows anyone to express any type of belief. That lets bigoted people voice hate of various minorities -- and even lets fundamentalist high school students call gays wicked.
The only cure we know is for multitudes of tolerant people to speak an opposite message of compassion. We hope all West Virginia schools adopt Mix It Up at Lunch Day to help children learn to understand others different from themselves.