WASHINGTON — It's a time-honored White House tradition, dating back more than 125 years to the administration of Rutherford B. Hayes: frolicking children and their proud parents, decked out in spring finery, celebrating the season by rolling Easter eggs on the South Lawn.
And on Friday, gay and lesbian families began staking their claim to a piece of the White House turf, traveling to the nation's capital from around the country to stand in line for tickets. The free tickets are scheduled to be issued on a first-come, first-served basis beginning at 7:30 this morning. The egg roll will be held Monday, weather permitting.
The White House Easter egg roll is a great event to "introduce gay families to the American public," said Jennifer Chrisler, executive director of the Family Pride Coalition, a nonprofit that promotes equal rights for gay families.
"We want the American public to see our families participating in events which all families can participate in," she said.
Chrisler and other gay organizers said they planned to take a low-key approach. "We are not trying to politicize the event," she said.
Groups opposed to same-sex couples raising children don't see it that way.
"They could easily demonstrate and make their statement at a thousand other places and a thousand other times, but I think that it's a shame that they had to pick the Easter egg roll," said Mark D. Tooley, director of the United Methodist Committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative religious advocacy and watchdog group. "I hope that they will be overshadowed by the tens of thousands of other families who will show up as well."
Although President Bush has supported the idea of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, the White House indicated it did not plan to make an issue of gay and lesbian families at the Easter egg festivities.
The White House said children of all ages were welcome, though each group must include no more than two adults and at least one child.
Last year, the National Park Service reportedly issued more than 15,000 tickets, with a similar number expected to be passed out this year. To accommodate the crowds, families are admitted to the White House grounds at 15-minute intervals in groups that range from 250 to 500.
Children have gathered at the White House for Easter fun and games since 1878, and the festivities have grown more elaborate over the years.
In announcing its plans to take part in the event, the Family Pride Coalition said on its website that participants should plan "to be in line by Friday evening to be the first ones on the White House lawn so we can maximize our impact. Our goal is to be in the first four contingents that are admitted to the White House lawn."
Fearing that slogan-emblazoned T-shirts could be perceived as a political statements and cause for barring their entry, the gay families will wear rainbow-colored leis instead, leaders said.
The idea to attend in large numbers was sparked by Colleen Gillespie, an assistant research professor at the Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University. Gillespie and her partner and their young daughter got tickets for last year's egg roll, which was co-hosted by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings.
Earlier, Spellings had criticized an episode of "Postcards from Buster," a PBS children's show, because it featured families like Gillespie's -- lesbians raising children. The broadcaster pulled the episode.
"Was our daughter supposed to pretend that she didn't have two moms?" Gillespie said Thursday. "I feel frustrated when any politician talks about knowing gays when they don't know our families.
"We exist and want to participate in a public event."
Asked Thursday about the controversy, Peter Watkins, deputy press secretary to First Lady Laura Bush, said the egg roll was a public event and "all families are welcome to attend it."
Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, a nationwide activist group, called Watkins' comments "gracious" but said he believed that they did not reflect the real opinions of the White House.