Excluded LGBT groups will march in July 4 parade after striking compromise with America’s Freedom Festival

(Rick Bowmer | AP) Utah County Commissioner Nathan Ivie speaks as he holds the American flag during a news conference to discuss the America's Freedom Festival's decision Thursday, June 14, 2018, in Provo, Utah. LGBT groups that were denied requests to participate in a July 4 parade that is part of America's Freedom Festival in Provo spoke out Thursday about being rejected even after festival organizer and Provo city officials signed a nondiscrimination deal.

Provo • Five support organizations for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Utahns will reportedly be allowed to participate in next month’s July Fourth parade after reaching a compromise with America’s Freedom Festival, the parade’s organizer.

Kendall Wilcox, a member of Mormons Building Bridges, said the LGBT organizations plan to consolidate into two parade entries, including a float provided by festival organizers.

“That’s a huge sign of good faith and good will,” Wilcox said. “It’s a slight miracle — or a big miracle, frankly — that we walked out of there with a compromise.”

The LGBT organizations’ individual parade applications were previously denied by America’s Freedom Festival, which generated criticism from residents and accusations that festival organizers had breeched nondiscrimination clauses in its contracts with Provo City and Utah County.

Wilcox and other representatives of Utah’s LGBT community met with festival organizers for more than two hours on Thursday, in what Wilcox described as one of the most intense meetings of his life. He said there was anger, tears, frustration and pain as individuals on both sides of the issue expressed their concerns.

“It was a very human, messy endeavor,” Wilcox said. “But in the end, we had a bit of grace and that brought us to a compromise.”

Stephenie Larsen, founder of Encircle, said she anticipates reapplying separately from the two consolidated entries for her organization to march in a “pre-parade” portion of the event.

Larsen was among the participants of Thursday’s two-hour meeting. She said the time did not allow for a final determination for Encircle, which focuses on LGBT teens, but that she’s optimistic the group will satisfy the festival’s criteria for participation.

“They want it more patriotic so I think we’re adding flags,” Larsen said. “Our only goal is to get in the parade and to celebrate freedom with the community.”

Festival director Paul Warner could not be reached for comment after Thursday’s meeting.

Encircle was approved and subsequently removed from last year’s parade. The organization’s treatment was a primary factor in the inclusion of nondiscrimination language in this year’s contract and was cited Thursday by county and city government leaders as an error that should not be repeated by festival organizers.

“We are so grateful that we have leaders who are wiling to stand up for what’s right,” Larsen said, “and to abide by the law and to make our community a better place.”

Utah County Commissioner Nathan Ivie threatened Wednesday to strip some of the festival’s public funding over the groups’ exclusion and remained skeptical Thursday morning after parade organizer’s offered to allow the denied groups to adjust and resubmit their applications.

“That’s great,” he told a crowd of roughly 50 people outside Provo City Hall. “I also know bulls--- when I see it.”

Ivie apologized for his “cowboy English” but said he was baffled by festival organizers’ decision to exclude lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups despite signing nondiscrimination agreements.

“I didn’t think somebody would be stupid enough to do what they did,” Ivie said.

Utah County approved a $100,000 donation to the Freedom Festival earlier this year after the nonprofit signed its nondiscrimination agreement.

Ivie said he’s willing to let the festival fix its mistakes. But he believes exclusion of all LGBT groups was a breach of contract, and if it stands, he would move to rescind county funding this year. If that’s not possible, he added, he would oppose continued public funding of the event in the future.

“They’re being excluded because they’re gay,” Ivie said. “Call a spade a spade.”

Provo City leaders similarly questioned ongoing taxpayer support of the festival after its exclusions. Wayne Parker, the city’s chief administrative officer, said funding is likely “locked in” for next month’s festival but that there will be a policy discussion about whether, and in what form, city taxpayers will continue to support the annual event.

And Provo Mayor Michelle Kaufusi said the city would review whether America’s Freedom Festival violated its contract with the city, including the nondiscrimination clause. The exclusion of the LGBT support groups just hours after she hailed the new nondiscrimination contract took Kaufusi’s breath away, she said, and she called on festival organizers to work on a solution.

“It’s not the Fourth of July yet, there’s still some time,” she said. “We’ve worked so hard to take two steps forward. And I kind of felt like this was a little bit of a step back.”

Kaufusi and two members of her administration declined to meet with the media on Thursday, instead issuing live statements through a privately recorded video on Facebook, which cut off abruptly after roughly 15 minutes.

Organizers of America’s Freedom Festival announced Wednesday that they would not allow 22 applicants into the July Fourth parade because they “were deemed outside the parameters of the parade guidelines.” These included five LGBT groups, two of which filed a joint application.

Warner, the festival’s director, announced Thursday morning that the rejected groups would have a chance to modify their applications.

HIs statement included some strict guidelines for applicants: that they should have a patriotic message, carry American flags, wear red, white and blue, have fewer than 150 members and not be “a group advertisement.”

“Let’s celebrate America, pure and simple,” Warner said.

The statement also reiterated that the nonprofit’s decision to exclude 22 applicants had nothing to do with prejudice or discrimination.

“The Festival firmly stands for equal opportunity,” Warner said. “However, the parade is a 4th of July celebration of America, not a special interest-oriented parade.”

Wednesday’s news of the rejections came just hours after the nonprofit organization — which receives hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money — signed a new contract with Provo that included nondiscrimination language. The city is providing $150,000 in support to the nonprofit.

State Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, sponsored the proposal to give $100,000 in state assistance to the Freedom Festival this year, as he has in previous years.

He is following the controversy closely.

“I will reserve my opinion on continued funding based on how this all plays out this year,” Bramble told The Tribune. “I am concerned about tax dollars going to organizations that the optics — whether it’s the perception or the reality — the perception of discrimination is not consistent with the values of America.”

Wilcox, of Mormons Building Bridges, said his organization was given no specifics on why its entry was denied for the fourth year in a row or what changes would be necessary for approval.

“We have been given no further feedback beyond just a broad statement,” he said. “They feel that we are trying to promote our issues over and above the theme and the purpose of the parade, which is not true.”

Mormons Building Bridges planned to feature LGBT veterans during the parade. Ivie, the county commissioner, referred to that entry to question the exclusions.

“I can guarantee you a bunch of veterans marching in the parade is patriotic,” he said.

“The parade committee is sending the message that LGBTQ people are not welcome in the parade and are not welcome in Provo — and that’s a sad message,” said Erika Munson, also of Mormons Building Bridges.

Jordan Sgro, Encircle’s chief program officer, said it was difficult for the group’s members to be told, again, that they’re not allowed to participate.

“It just reinforces the message that you’re not wanted,” Sgro said, “and that you’re not loved and that you’re not cared about.”

In a prepared statement, Provo City Councilman George Handley said he is blessed to have a gay sibling and is grateful for the work of LGBT support organizations.

He said he fails to see how the festival’s decision to exclude those groups is consistent with its nondiscrimination agreement.

“I want to express my love and appreciation to the organizations and individuals who today may feel disheartened and rejected,” Handley said. “We need you in our community and we are better for your presence and service among us.”

Reporter Sean P. Means contributed to this report.