SAMOHI — Hundreds of students, community members and others surrounded Santa Monica High School in a “chain of unity” Monday morning to counter a handful of protesters from the Westboro Baptist Church.
The event remained peaceful, with students holding signs and wearing T-shirts with slogans like “2 4 6 8 We teach our children not to hate” and “Jesus had 2 dads” in response to the church members’ signs declaring the end of America and their deity’s hatred of homosexuals.
At least 500 students and members of the community lined up on the north side of Pico Boulevard, directly across the street from the handful of Westboro Baptist Church protesters who set up shop on the southern side of Pico where it intersects with Sixth Street.
At least 25 Santa Monica police officers attended on foot, on motorcycle and in squad cars to ensure that the protest went peacefully and that both sides followed the law.
Samohi Gay Straight Alliance leaders were pleased with the turnout, which stretched along the sidewalk at Pico Boulevard and around the corner on Michigan Avenue.
“We’re trying to turn something negative into something positive,” said Ruhi Bhallu, a junior at Samohi and co-president of the GSA.
Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church spokesperson Stephen Drain remained undeterred.
“God doesn’t rule by majority,” Drain said, and quoted a passage from the Bible that condemns homosexuality.
The protest wrapped up by 7:45 a.m. without incident. Students cheered at the receding backs of the Westboro Baptist Church members.
The church members, in town primarily to protest the Academy Awards, declared their intention to picket outside of the high school two weeks ago.
The organization has made a name for itself by going to high-profile locations like military funerals and glitzy events like the Oscars to express their conservative point of view.
The announcement galvanized the high school’s Gay Straight Alliance, which spent the intervening two weeks organizing the peaceful counter protest and discussions to be held each period in English classes.
Community members, school and district administrators and elected officials also attended the event to support the students.
“We’re proud of our students and administration for organizing this, and to the community for coming out to support it,” said Superintendent Sandra Lyon.
Judson Yaker, a Santa Monica resident, was concerned with the role that school officials and faculty played in the counter demonstration, and confronted two high school employees about signs that referenced hatred toward the Westboro Baptist Church.
He questioned whether or not teachers would have escorted a student protest which opposed homosexuality and gay marriage, or took a position that teachers disagreed with.
“I asked if they could imagine what it’s like to be a student on the other side, and the angst of not being able to speak,” Yaker said.
Roughly 175 students from New Roads, a small private school in Santa Monica, came to join the counter protest, and members of the faith community in Santa Monica, North Hollywood, Pasadena and elsewhere also gathered to lend their support to Samohi’s students.
It was difficult for some local church leaders to watch the Westboro Baptist Church members express their intentionally-antagonistic views.
“It makes me feel a variety of things to have such a divide on something that seems so basic,” said Rev. Robert English of the First United Methodist Church of Santa Monica.
Members of the faith community said that they were there not to be against Westboro, but to support students in their efforts to demonstrate support for members of the lesbian, gay and transgender community.
“We’re not going to be able to change their minds,” said Pastor Terry Allen of Trinity Lutheran Church in Pasadena.
As for Drain, he had another opinion of the clergy involved in the counterprotest.
“They’re Christians like I’m Aretha Franklin,” he said.
Whatever Westboro Baptist Church’s intentions, its presence on Monday was a boon to the high school GSA.
Organizers had raised $4,600 by 10 a.m. Monday through a fundraiser on the CrowdRise website entitled “Raise money for GSA Network in (Westboro Baptist Church’s) name!”
The Gay Straight Alliance Network is an organization that helps schools bring support and awareness to gender issues and homophobia. Counterprotestors hope to raise $6,000, or $100 for every minute the Westboro Baptist Church members protested.