Just hours after signing nondiscrimination deal with Provo, Freedom Festival excludes LGBT groups from July 4 parade

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) The Springville Royalty dab and wave to the crowd during the annual Freedom Festival Grand Parade in downtown Provo Tuesday, July 4, 2017.

America’s Freedom Festival in Provo will once again exclude from its July 4 parade the LGBT resource center for youths that it accepted last year, then ousted at the last minute, spurring controversy and headlines.

“They did not allow us to be in the parade,” Stephenie Larsen, founder of Encircle, told The Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday evening just minutes after being informed of the decision.

“They said it was celebrating patriotism and our [proposed entry] was not celebrating patriotism,” Larsen said. “I’m surprised. I’m very surprised. We worked long and hard hoping that they would come around.

“Oh, well, we gave it our best.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Stephenie Larsen talks about the new Encircle family and youth resource center that will open in Salt Lake City later this year. Friday, February 2, 2018.

Four other LGBT support groups — including two that filed a joint application — also were rejected by the nonprofit festival organization, said Kendall Wilcox, a member of Mormons Building Bridges, which had its application declined.

“If no LGBT group gets into the parade, the message is inescapable: LGBT people are not welcome in the Freedom Festival, and they’re not welcome in Provo,” Wilcox said, noting that the groups intend to challenge the decision.

Provo Pride and PFLAG Provo/Utah County (a local branch of the national group with an acronym that stands for Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), which applied together, and Queer Meals also had their requests to participate turned down for the festival that is subsidized to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars by taxpayers.

“We’re just very disappointed,” said Roni Jo Draper, vice president of PFLAG Provo. She said the group’s application focused on families and bringing people together — and she doesn’t understand why that “didn’t seem to fit with the values that the Freedom Festival upholds for their parade.

“Our entry was about how our community is like a quilt of families.”

A prepared statement issued by the Freedom Festival on Wednesday afternoon said 22 applicants were rejected because they “were deemed outside the parameters of the parade guidelines.”

It went on to say that the organization fairly reviewed each parade application “in full alignment with the Freedom Festival’s nondiscrimination policy.”

The unsigned statement did not identify those groups, nor the 80 applicants accepted, except to say they match the parade’s newly announced theme “United We Stand,” saluting military members and “others who have given much to our beloved country.”

“So being pro-LGBT is not in keeping with being patriotic and valuing God and country and family?” Wilcox asked. “We reject that categorization flat out. It’s not an either or proposition.”

Brianna Cluck, a spokeswoman for Provo Pride, added that she believes the groups were denied “for no other reason than being associated with the LGBT community.”

Josh Holt, the Utahn recently released after being held two years without charges or trial in a Venezuelan prison, will be honored, along with his wife Thamy, according to the statement. Other Gala Award honorees named were H. Grant Keeler, a 100-year-old World War II veteran, and Bun Yom, described as a survivor of the Cambodian killing fields during the reign of Pol Pot.

State Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, the only openly gay member of Utah’s Legislature, called the parade’s exclusionary practice “a last vestige of formalized, taxpayer-supported out-and-out bigotry and aggression against a bunch of fabulous, amazing kids that have a tough enough struggle in life.”

“It’s pathetic,” Dabakis said. “It’s sad for Utah and Utah County and Silicon Slopes. There’s no reasonable justification for this, no justification other than homophobia.”

Provo Mayor Michelle Kaufusi earlier Wednesday hailed the nondiscrimination deal she signed with Freedom Festival leaders.

“I am pleased to announce that festival organizers and Provo City have agreed to incorporate non-discrimination language into their contractual relationship,” she wrote on her mayor’s blog. “This is the result of months of dialogue and cooperative effort. We believe this has been a growing process for those involved and that the result is a positive one.”

The mayor’s office did not return phone messages Wednesday, nor did Paul Warner, director of America’s Freedom Festival.

But in a statement released late Wednesday night, Deputy Mayor Isaac Paxman said the mayor’s office was disappointed Encircle’s application had been denied.

“We think it would be wonderful if the Freedom Festival and Encircle would work together to see if they can come up with an entry that both the festival and Encircle can feel good about.”

Earlier in the day, a statement from Paxman’s office said it was up to festival organizers to decide which parade entries were accepted.

“Have we encouraged them to try to find ways to be inclusive of groups like Encircle? Yes. We appreciate that they’ve engaged in dialogue with some of these groups to try to find ways to be inclusive of them. We hope they’ll have a mindset that Encircle, in particular, ended up in an awkward position last year with the last-minute change.”

Paxman praised Encircle for “a lot of good and important work” in the community. And he hailed the Freedom Festival as “a remarkable organization that does amazing things to celebrate causes our citizens hold dear.”

The new contract with Provo prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender, age, national origin, disability, marital status or sexual orientation. But, according to a description in the Daily Herald of Provo, it gives the festival board “wide discretion to include or exclude organizations” based, in part, on their “alignment with the theme, mission and values of the Festival.”

The nonprofit’s mission statement says it is to “celebrate, teach, honor and strengthen the traditional American values of God, family, freedom and country.”

Mormons Building Bridges co-founder Erika Munson, contacted earlier Wednesday, was hopeful her group’s entry would be OK’d.

“Our application is for a group of LGBTQ veterans, which we hope aligns with the event,” Munson said.

“What we hope is that the spirit of nondiscrimination will persist throughout this process,” she said. “This is an opportunity for the Provo Freedom Festival to be truly inclusive.”

Larsen, of Encircle, said her group clearly fits within the festival’s mission.

“Our mission is basically to bring the family and community together to enable our youth to thrive. What we do is work hard to keep families together,” she said.

Regarding the “religious or the God factor” of the mission statement, she said, “most of the youth who come to Encircle are very religious and they feel like their God might not love them for who they are and they’re really grappling with being OK with themselves and ‘Is their God OK with them?’”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Stephenie Larsen, founder of Encircle House, receives a leadership award from Scott Anderson, President and CEO of Zions Bank, at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival Utah Women’s Leadership Celebration in Park City, Thursday, January 25, 2018.

She also said the goal of freedom is part of what Encircle strives for in working to allow “these kids to live in a community where they feel loved and accepted, and where they can thrive.”

“So I do feel like it’s hard for them to argue that our missions don’t align, or that we don’t fit in because of that,” Larsen said.

Later, after being informed in a phone call that Encircle’s application was rejected, she said it seemed the criteria had abruptly shifted.

The patriotism theme now was the thing — “and they kept bringing up how they want flags. I said, ‘That’s not what you asked for in the application.’ In the application, we clearly showed that our missions both align — freedom, family and God.”

In March, after the Utah County Commission signed a similar nondiscrimination contract in approving $100,000 for the festival, the nonprofit’s executive director, Warner, told The Tribune “that agreement will not apply to the parade.

Instead, he said taxpayer money donated to the festival would be used for nonparade events.

“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 told the newspaper at the time.

— Tribune reporter Courtney Tanner contributed to this story.