NEW YORK – Conservative groups are putting the squeeze on a film starring SpongeBob SquarePants (search) bound for elementary schools — charging it promotes a gay lifestyle.
The four-minute video features the wildly-popular gap-toothed sponge — whose sexuality has been questioned because he often holds hands with his pink friend, starfish Patrick Star — and scores of other cartoon characters singing the disco classic "We Are Family" alongside celebs Diana Ross (search), Bill Cosby (search) and Whoopi Goldberg (search).
The creators of the video, the We Are Family Foundation (search) — started by music legend Nile Rodgers (search), who wrote the song — say its message is to foster tolerance and plan to send copies this spring to up to 70,000 school districts nationally.
But conservative groups insist the film cunningly seeks to coerce children to embrace homosexuality.
They tie their claim to a "tolerance pledge" on the foundation's Web site that includes "having respect for people whose ... sexual identity or other characteristics are different from my own."
Focus on the Family (search), a conservative group, issued a statement Thursday saying, "By calling to light this video and its affiliation with this larger organization ... we're connecting the dots."
Michele McManus Higgins, a spokeswoman for the New York City Department of Education (search), noted the agency has not seen the film, and said, "As in all cases, principals can determine whether the video is relevant and appropriate for their students."
The We Are Family Foundation's lawyer, Mark Barondess, called the critics "insane" and accused them of "seeing what they want to see."
Frank Russo Jr., state director of the American Family Association of New York (search), said his chapter would not "make a big deal" about the video but that the brouhaha, first reported in Thursday's New York Times, is just another reason why parents should have more say in their children's education.
Alan Van Capelle, executive director of the gay-rights group Empire State Pride Agenda (search), called the controversy "a joke" on multiple levels.
"How crazy have we all become in questioning the sexuality of cartoon characters as if they're real people. Get a grip!" Van Capelle said.
"If SpongeBob is a gay icon, someone needs to tell Barbra Streisand (search)," he said. "If he's a gay icon, I should know about it."