Wearing tie-dyed shirts and hoisting signs of love and acceptance, hundreds of high school students and community members rallied outside Boulder High on Thursday to counter a small group of protesters from the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church.
The crowd of counter-protesters, which grew to about 1,000 people after 3 p.m., gathered on both sides of Arapahoe Avenue.
Before school let out, the 1,800 students at Boulder High gathered behind the school for a unity celebration. The goal was to ignore the protesters and avoid conflict, but about the time the pizza ran out and the bell rang, students left the building on the south side and walked around front to confront the protesters.
"We wanted to show how something like this can't tear us apart," said Boulder High freshman Aimee Anderson, 14.
Westboro, a Kansas-based church, is known for protesting gay and Jewish people and for picketing the funerals of U.S. service members.
While seven Westboro protesters outside Boulder High on Thursday shouted warnings that the nation's destruction is imminent and that sinners -- like the people of Boulder -- are to blame, counter-protesters played Bob Marley music and told the Westboro group to go home.
"You're a terrible person," one counter-protester shouted in the ear of Steve Drain, 45, as he waved a "God Hates You" sign and talked about how wrong parents are who tell their children it's "OK to be gay."
"It is OK, you idiot," someone shouted.
"The moral compasses of these children are broken," Drain said. "Their parents had a duty, and they failed."
Drain said the Westboro group came to Boulder as a warning.
"My message for these poor kids today is this: 'I hope you obey your God. If you disobey, you can't expect anything but destruction," Drain said. "But there is no hope for them."
Drain's wife, Luci Drain, and their 7-year-old son, Boaz Drain, also protested on Thursday.
"You are going to go to hell," Luci Drain shouted as motorists passed the crowd and honked and waved.
After leaving Boulder High, the protesters went to the Sacred Heart of Jesus School, and many of the counter-protesters at Boulder High followed them. Yellow tape surrounded the Catholic school's parking lot, and police cars lined the streets to keep the crowds under control.
The Westboro group also went to Hillel, the University of Colorado's Jewish student center. Chancellor Phil DiStefano asked that students and employees not meet Westboro picketers with counter-protests, saying it's "beneath the dignity" of the campus. A couple of hundred CU students showed up to picket the Baptist church anyway.
At Boulder High, freshman Renee Underhill, 14, said she thinks students from high schools around town wanted to show up to counter the protesters, sending a message of unity and pride in diversity.
"They're saying, 'Boulder High parents taught their kids to accept everyone,' and we're like, 'That's right, they did, and we're awesome for it,'" Renee said.
Renee said she doesn't care that the Westboro group was deaf to their message of acceptance because -- after a racist death threat was found in the school last week -- Boulder High sent a message to the community Thursday that the school is a place for everyone.
"Boulder High pulled together and got through this," Renee said.
Boulder High Principal Kevin Braney said he's proud of the way his students handled themselves in the face of such hate. The principal sent a letter home to parents and students Thursday evening thanking them for keeping their composure and cooperating with authorities during the protest.
"The student Unity Fest, along with the protest on Arapahoe Avenue went as well, if not better, than could be anticipated," according to the letter. "I am very proud of (the students) and of our staff for pulling together and working through this experience, making it a genuine learning opportunity."