The Utah County Commission on Tuesday unanimously approved giving $100,000 in taxpayer funds to America’s Freedom Festival — with the stipulation that the nonprofit abide by a nondiscrimination agreement after event organizers last year blocked an LGBTQ group from walking in the parade.
But event organizers told The Salt Lake Tribune that they will use private money to put on the parade, leaving open the possibility that they won’t abide by the nondiscrimination clause in deciding who may participate.
“That agreement will not apply to the parade,” said Paul Warner, executive director of the Freedom Festival.
He added that the organizers don’t yet know whether they’ll honor the intent of the nondiscrimination agreement for parade applicants.
“We want to do the best for celebrating the Fourth [of July] in the community without having it be a disruption or a controversy,” Warner continued. “We’ve had a lot of people say, ‘Let’s not make the parade a controversial item. Let’s just make it a celebration of the Declaration of Independence.’ And so we get pressure for a lot of sides, as you can imagine.”
The county agreement’s with the Freedom Festival originally included the parade in its provisions, said Commission Vice Chairman Bill Lee told The Tribune, but it was later removed for “functionality.”
As approved, the contract now states that the nondiscrimination clause specifically applies to events sponsored by Utah County, “including but not limited to” the Freedom Awards Gala, Freedom Days and the Stadium of Fire.
“I probably would like to talk with Paul [Warner] a little bit again,” Lee said when he heard the organization hadn’t determined whether it would honor the nondiscrimination agreement for the parade. “I felt comfortable in our conversation that [the parade] was, yes, being excluded out but therefore still having a sense of what we’re trying to accomplish in there.”
County Commissioner Nathan Ivie noted at the meeting that “concerns raised about some exclusion” had prompted the creation of the nondiscrimination clause in the agreement.
Steven Shallenberger, a trustee with Freedom Festival, spoke in support of the nondiscrimination clause during public comment at the commission meeting.
“We concur with the language that’s in this agreement and hope that it will be supported,” he said. “And as we go forward, hopefully we’ll all be proud of our community so wherever we go, we say, ‘That Provo, that Utah County, is one special place because all are included.’”
At last year’s Fourth of July parade, an LGBTQ resource center was cut out hours before its members planned to march. Encircle, a Provo-based resource center, had been accepted into the event but was later disqualified because parade officials deemed it an “advocacy group.”
That produced a wave of criticism against the organizers, whose nonprofit receives hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money. This year, the Utah Legislature approved a request to give the organization $100,000, which Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, requested in an appropriations bill. That measure is now awaiting the governor’s signature or veto.
“I don’t think discrimination is appropriate anywhere,” Bramble told The Salt Lake Tribune Tuesday. “I haven’t seen what they passed, but I don’t think the Freedom Festival should discriminate against folks. I think the issue of the parade, whether they want folks advocating for a cause or not, they shouldn’t discriminate against who they either grant approval to or who they deny an application for.”
In 2016, America’s Freedom Festival received nearly $400,000 from government sources, including $100,000 from state lawmakers, $113,000 from Utah County, and another $150,000 in cash and in-kind police and fire services from Provo, government records for all three entities show.
“We acknowledge that the parade organizers would have the right to discriminate against groups on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity if the organizers were willing to forgo public funding and public resources,” said Kendall Wilcox, a Utah County resident and the co-founder of Mormons Building Bridges. “However, we challenge the Freedom Festival to think twice about their use of the First Amendment to keep historically marginalized groups separate and apart.”
Nine other residents — who described themselves as business owners, taxpayers and members of various advocacy groups — also spoke in favor of the clause.
They noted the importance of representation in building community and preventing youth suicide, which has increased each year nearly four times faster than the national average, according to a federal report released in November. That rate is higher among LGBTQ populations.
“We know that the No. 1 cause of depression among LGBT Mormons is family and community rejection, and we also know that the best prevention is family acceptance and community inclusion,” said John Gustav-Wrathall, the executive director of Affirmation, a LGBTQ Mormon support group. “When communities come together in public spaces and celebrate their common life, it is an affirmation of the social fabric that connects us, that weaves our individual strands into a harmonious, colorful and beautiful whole.”
Only one resident spoke against the measure during public comment, an attorney representing the Utah Eagle Forum.
“It is inappropriate to force a parade that was founded on a traditional family and the things that the family does to hold our society together to provide a platform for a message of sexuality that is unrelated to the general principles of the parade,” Dani Palmer said. “So I’m not against an anti-discrimination clause. What I am against is being forced to provide a message that is not agreed with and furthers the breakdown of the family.”
America’s Freedom Festival in Provo is a private, nonprofit and nonpolitical foundation. Its mission is “to celebrate, teach, honor and strengthen the traditional American values of God, family, freedom and country,” according to its website.
Utah’s largest parade — the Days of ’47 — has for four consecutive years excluded the group Mormons Building Bridges, which promotes improved relations between the LDS and LGBTQ communities.
Unlike the Freedom Festival, the Days of ‘47 Inc. nonprofit does not accept public funding.