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NEW ORLEANS -- Gov. Bobby Jindal on Wednesday defended his role as headline speaker at a prayer rally on Louisiana State University's campus next month that has drawn the ire of protesters who say the group hosting the event promotes discrimination and an anti-gay agenda.

The Jan. 24 prayer rally is expected to draw thousands of people to LSU's campus for what Jindal, a Roman Catholic, describes in an invitation as "a time of worship, prayer, fasting and repentance."

But the event, called The Response, has drawn heavy criticism because of the views of its sponsor organization, the Tupelo, Mississippi-based American Family Association. The organization has linked same-sex marriage and abortion to disasters such as tornadoes and Hurricane Katrina.

The American Family Association did not immediately return a telephone call Wednesday from The Associated Press.

The event is expected to raise the Republican governor's profile with Christian conservatives, a group that Jindal is heavily courting as he builds a possible presidential campaign in 2016. Texas Gov. Rick Perry headlined a similar prayer rally in 2011 only a few days before launching his White House bid.

"Let's be clear about what this is. This is an opportunity for people across denominational lines to come together to pray," Jindal said. "It's not a political event, it's a religious event."

He said that while he respects the rights of protesters, religious groups have the right to express their beliefs and should not be barred from being able to hold the event on the LSU campus. A protest is planned while the event is taking place at the campus's Pete Maravich Assembly Center, and critics are urging LSU not to allow the prayer rally to happen.

"Christians have the right to rent, to pay for a hall at a public university so they can come together and pray," Jindal told reporters at an economic development announcement in New Orleans.

Asked if he agreed with the American Family Association's agenda, Jindal sidestepped that question and said, "The left likes to try to divide and attack Christians."

Jindal said the protesters themselves should consider joining the prayer rally. He said they "might benefit from prayer."

Though it seems unlikely LSU will stop the rally from taking place, the college is trying to distance itself from the event.

"Rental of an LSU facility does not imply any endorsement," university spokesman Ernie Ballard said in a statement.

More than 1,000 people have signed a change.org petition urging the university to scrap the event. Petition organizer Taylor Huckaby, an LSU graduate who lives in Los Angeles, said the rally violates the university's nondiscrimination policies.

"This organization is just nasty and they tirelessly promote absolutely false propaganda about gay people that has real harmful effects to people all around the country," Huckaby, a gay man who graduated from LSU in 2012, said Wednesday in a telephone interview.

He said while the American Family Association has the right to express its beliefs, "I think that LSU also has the right to say, 'You can believe what you want, but you don't have to say it here.'"

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Associated Press Writer Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, contributed to this report.