NEW YORK -- Cartoon characters adored by children seized the spotlight in the latest flare-up of America's culture wars, but the debate itself poses serious questions for adults involving the depiction of gays and lesbians in materials for teaching children about diversity and tolerance.
The liberal camp argues that even young children should learn that intolerance based on sexual identity is wrong, and that gays are as legitimate a part of the national mosaic as anyone else.
"It's about creating awareness and understanding of people who are different," said Joan Garry of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. "Why shouldn't that be a good thing for America's young people?"
The conservative camp has responded vehemently: By all means, teach children to respect other individuals, but do not cross the line and teach them that homosexuality is acceptable.
"Tolerance itself can be a very dangerous word," said the Rev. Terry Fox, a Southern Baptist pastor in Wichita, Kan. "Tolerance gives the public schools an avenue to literally brainwash our kids that every lifestyle is OK."
Separate controversies in recent weeks have raised these issues:
* Education Secretary Margaret Spellings' criticism of an episode of the Public Broadcasting Service children's series "Postcards from Buster," in which the animated bunny visits the children of two lesbian couples in Vermont. "Many parents would not want their young children exposed to the lifestyles portrayed in the episode," Spellings wrote to PBS.
* An attack by some conservative leaders on a pro-diversity initiative of the We Are Family Foundation that features a video starring scores of cartoon characters, including SpongeBob SquarePants. The true agenda, said Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, "is to desensitize very young children to homosexual and bisexual behavior."
* Some conservatives said last month's "No Name-Calling Week" in many middle schools was too focused on harassment of gays. In Massachusetts, the one state allowing gay marriage, conservatives say students are being indoctrinated to admire such marriages.
Dobson, bristling at mocking commentary about his reference to SpongeBob, has posted a lengthy explanation of his concerns on the Web site of his Colorado-based Christian ministry. The problem, he says, was not the video itself, but the We Are Family Foundation's use of a "tolerance pledge" mentioning sexual identity and its ties to other groups supporting gay rights.
Tolerance and diversity "are almost always buzzwords for homosexual advocacy," Dobson wrote. "Kids should not be taught that homosexuality is just another 'lifestyle' or that it is morally equivalent to heterosexuality."
Dobson and other conservatives were pleased when Spellings, soon after the SpongeBob flap, condemned the "Postcards from Buster" episode.
"For years, PBS has been slipping pro-homosexual messages into its programming," said Robert Knight of the Culture and Family Institute. "Along comes Secretary Spellings, who takes action as a servant of the people instead of a timid, go-along bureaucrat. Good for her."
After Spellings' statement, PBS said it would not distribute the episode to its 349 stations. Boston-based WGBH, the show's producer, is providing it directly to more than 20 fellow stations.
"We consider it the responsibility of public television to give children and parents the resources they need to understand the world they inhabit -- without excluding any segment of our society," WGBH said. "The major goal of 'Postcards from Buster' is to help kids understand the richness and complexity of American culture."
Nancy Carlsson-Page, an education professor at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., has emphasized diversity awareness in a career spent training early-education teachers. She said Spellings was wrong to suggest that a certain category of family -- those headed by gays or lesbians -- be excluded from images shown to children.
"All children, whatever family composition they have, should see the full, diverse range of families," Carlsson-Page said. "Otherwise, when they encounter a different kind of family, they'll think that family is lesser, that it doesn't count."
Linda Hodge, president of the National PTA, said she strongly supports classroom initiatives promoting tolerance and combating bullying. However, she suggested some programs could backfire if they focus so explicitly on harassment of gays that those students feel singled out and labeled.
Hodge's bottom line: "Every child should feel safe and welcome in school."
For GLAAD's Joan Garry, a lesbian raising three children, the controversies hit home on a personal level.
"There are millions of kids living in households with two moms or two dads, and millions of other kids who know those kids," she said. "I wonder what James Dobson would say to my own children. What would be the respectful, Christian thing to say to them?"
On the Net:
Focus on the Family: http://www.family.org/