SAMOHI — Members of the Santa Monica High School community are rallying in opposition to news that the controversial Westboro Baptist Church is planning to protest outside of the school at the end of the month.
The church, which has made a name for itself by displaying provocative signs outside of high-profile locations like military funerals, announced its intentions to picket the campus at 7 a.m. on Feb. 25, the day after its planned protest of the Academy Awards.
Seven members of the church plan to teach high schoolers “truth” that their parents, teachers and preachers have denied them, said Stephen Drain, a representative of the church.
“The students at these high schools, they’ve had their moral compasses broken since they were youths,” Drain said. “We know that the students have not been taught the truth, and they’re just as deserving of it.”
The Samohi community is buzzing with the news, and already counter-protests are being coordinated by on- and off-campus groups.
The campus Gay Straight Alliance held a meeting Wednesday to prepare, and the issue has electrified the membership, said senior Molly Chaikin, co-president and public relations manager for the club.
“It’s a negative thing, but I’m kind of flattered that we were chosen to be protested against,” Chaikin said. “It means we’re doing our job.”
If even most of the people who have expressed interest come, there will be a couple hundred youth in attendance, a crowd that would vastly outweigh the Westboro Church members.
That’s alright, Chaikin said.
“Even if it’s a hoax, and they don’t show up, it’s still a really unifying experience,” she said.
Over 100 people have already signed up to appear at a counter protest for alumni organized on social-networking site Facebook.
The group — “Love > Hate, Samo > WBC” — calls on Viking alumni to assemble in opposition to the group.
“It appears we have enemies on our shores,” the group profile reads.
Others who have also posted to the group counsel pacificity and even outright disinterest, explaining that by paying attention to the protesters, locals are playing into their hands.
One poster, writing under the name Matthew Ware, said that the counter-protest had “fostered the strongest showing of unity and compassion that the school has seen in a long time.”
Given the heightened emotions around the proposed protest, both the Santa Monica Police Department and school district officials have already begun planning for the event.
The Westboro Baptist Church reached out to the SMPD in advance regarding the protest, said Sgt. Richard Lewis, spokesperson for the police department.
The members of the church can protest and chant, but cannot use bullhorns, Lewis said.
“They have to abide by any rule or ordinance that we have,” he said.
Church members have perfected protests that stay just within their free speech rights, even as they offend others. Their style of protest was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 in an overwhelming 8 to 1 decision.
School officials will not try to disrupt those rights, but will continue to operate the high school as normally as possible, said Laurie Lieberman, president of the Board of Education.
“We understand that this group has First Amendment rights with which we cannot interfere,” Lieberman said. “We are working with the district and Samohi staff and with the Santa Monica Police Department to make sure that if a protest occurs, it will not interfere with our students nor disrupt the school day.”