In the latest sex scandal soaking up media attention, an evangelical leader “outed” SpongeBob Squarepants, prompting headlines questioning whether the Nickelodeon cartoon character is gay.

The New York Times first reported remarks by Focus on the Family founder James Dobson at a black-tie event celebrating President Bush’s inauguration Tuesday night in Washington.

“Does anybody here know SpongeBob?” Dobson asked, prompting nods of recognition. Dobson went on to say SpongeBob’s creators had enlisted him in a “pro-homosexual video,” in which he appeared alongside children’s television colleagues like Barney and Jimmy Neutron. The makers of the video, he said, planned to mail it to thousands of elementary schools to promote a “tolerance pledge” that includes tolerance for differences of “sexual identity.”

The maker of the video, Nile Rodgers, who wrote the disco hit “We Are Family,” said Dobson’s objection stemmed from confusion over a Web site.

A “We Are Family” Web site links to a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting “gay, lesbian, transgender, bisexual and questioning youth.” Rodgers said he founded the “We Are Family Foundation” after the Sept. 11 attacks to create a music video to teach children about multiculturalism. The two groups are unrelated.

But Dobson refused to back down. Focus on the Family responded with a statement saying Dobson’s objection was not to any specific cartoon character but about animated characters “being exploited by an organization that’s determined to promote the acceptance of homosexuality among our nation’s youth.”

Dobson’s group said the We Are Family Foundation’s inclusion of “sexual identity” in its tolerance pledge is “not only unnecessary, but it crosses a moral line.”

“We applaud the ideal of championing to children the value and dignity of every human life as well as respect for our differences,” the statement said. “What we vehemently object to is using these beloved characters to help advance an agenda that’s beyond the comprehension of 6 and 7 year-old children, not to mention morally offensive to millions of moms and dads.”

A moderate Baptist critic ridiculed Dobson’s charge. “Only a Fundamentalist demagogue who has made a career of ‘manipulating’ and ‘brainwashing’ people to read the Bible through medieval lenses could find cartoon characters teaching tolerance so threatening,” Bruce Prescott of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists wrote in a Weblog.

Entering the fray even before Dobson, the American Family Association ran an article in its monthly journal reporting the release and planned distribution of the “We Are Family” video remake featuring hundreds of cartoon characters.

“On the surface, the project may appear to be a worthwhile attempt to foster greater understanding of cultural differences among all Americans,” the article said. “However, a short step beneath the surface reveals that one of the differences being celebrated is homosexuality.”

AFA spokesperson Ed Vitagliano followed up with a statement renewing charges that the Web site “contains elements that promote the acceptance of homosexuality.”

“AFA believes that parents should be aware that their children may be exposed to the presentation of homosexuality as a normal, natural and healthy lifestyle,” Vitagliano said. “Schools should not present such teachings–especially to children at the elementary school level–without parental knowledge and approval.”

Rodgers told the San Jose Mercury News that he didn’t understand the motivation of his critics. “Nothing could be more devastating to the people who believe in me and our organization than to imply there’s an insidious undercurrent to it,” he said.

But his project isn’t the first time prominent evangelicals have perceived a darker side to children’s entertainment. Jerry Falwell in 1999 warned that Tinky Winky, one of the popular PBS “Teletubby” characters was being viewed as a gay-pride icon.

Leading up to the 1997 Southern Baptist Convention boycott of Disney, amid criticism of the company for giving insurance benefits to same-sex partners of employees and allowing “gay days” at its theme parks, some found subliminal sexual messages slipped into Disney animated features including “The Lion King,” “Aladdin” and “Little Mermaid.”

One rumor had “Aladdin” singing a line, “Good teenagers, take off your clothes.” Disney said the line is “Good tiger, take off and go.” Another said a dust cloud in the “Lion King” briefly forms curves and angles appearing to form the letters S-E-X. The minister in the wedding scene in “Little Mermaid” had a bulge in his robe, which some viewed an indication that he was sexually aroused.

The urban legends Web site found “Aladdin” and “Little Mermaid” rumors false. While finding the “sex” letters in “Lion King” reasonably apparent, the Web site said it could not determine if the image was deliberately planted or a product of the power of suggestion.

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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