Students at a Missouri prep school say they’ll respond to a planned Westboro Baptist Church protest by rallying in support of an openly gay athlete and classmate.
Members of the church, which is known for its vehement opposition to LGBTQ rights, have announced plans to picket John Burroughs School in Ladue, Missouri, on Monday, March 12. A Feb. 24 press release on the church’s website pointed to a “smirking, proud fag child” attending the private, non-sectarian prep school as the impetus for their protest.
“This beast is vaunted as the best thing that has happened to football since Knute Rockne,” the press release reads. “In fact, in the wake of this football playing fag phenomenon, Knute is just a proverbial water boy.”
One of John Burroughs’ star football players, Jake Bain, made headlines in October when he came out as gay in a speech delivered at a school assembly. Since then, the senior has announced plans to attend Indiana State University next fall on a football scholarship. (Watch a January NBC report on Bain above.)
“My main reason for coming out was not necessarily for me,” he told local NBC affiliate KSDK in December. “For me, it was to try and reach out to people who aren’t comfortable coming out. I feel like, especially within athletics, there’s a stigma. I don’t think being an athlete and gay really collide.”
The school’s headmaster, Andy Abbott, told Fox 2 Now that more than 200 John Burroughs students expressed an interest last week in staging a counterprotest of their own in response to Westboro’s targeting of their classmate. They’ve since planned to gather for an on-campus, 40-minute “display of support” for the LGBTQ community at the same time Westboro members make their appearance, which will be followed by a “unity walk” and a celebratory, “music-filled” assembly.
Abbott explained students’ plans for a counterprotest in a March 8 letter sent home to parents.
“In our society, there is always room for respectful differences of opinion. But WBC is nothing more than a hate group,” he wrote in the letter, which can be viewed on Fox 2 Now St. Louis’ website. “It maintains that God is punishing America because of its tolerance of the LGBTQ+ community ... their modus operandi is to carry inflammatory signs to incite reactions from those they picket.”
“What we will remember is that our students responded with unity and care and courage,” Abbott continued.
Meanwhile, members of the local LGBTQ advocacy group Pride St. Louis have said they will be present at John Burroughs School during Monday’s counterprotest. They’ve launched a social media campaign using the hashtag #StandWithJake in support of their classmate.
— Derrick Neuner (@drock89) March 8, 2018
“The dangerous and divisive rhetoric from Westboro Baptist Church cannot go unchallenged,” Pride St. Louis’ Vice President Marty Zuniga wrote on Facebook. “We must show them that this is a community of inclusion and diversity.”
Though Bain was initially bothered to learn about Westboro’s planned protest, he said he realized, “If this international hate group is coming after me and my community, then we must be doing something right.”
Ultimately, Bain and his classmates may not have much to worry about. Many of Westboro’s previous anti-LGBTQ protests drew less-than-impressive numbers of demonstrators on their behalf.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.