Mayor signs off on gay pride parade in Augusta

Copenhaver says he couldn't legally prevent June event downtown

A gay pride parade on June 19 is a go. Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver signed off on it Thursday, according to Traffic Engineering Technician Dennis Ellis.

The mayor said he did so after receiving a legal opinion from the city attorney, which he requested after a barrage of phone calls and e-mails about the event.

The mayor conceded, in so many words, that he got the opinion for political cover. He said he knew what it would say, that the city "may not legally prevent a gay pride parade from occurring in Augusta-Richmond County," but he wanted people with strong feelings on both sides to hear it from the Law Department.

"For the benefit of all involved, I wanted to have the legal decision," he said. "I have a pretty good understanding of First Amendment law. I think it's best coming from a lawyer who understands case law."

The text of opinion, written by Interim General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie in a memo dated Wednesday, covered less than a page.

Quoting case law, he said it is undisputed that public streets " 'are quintessential public forums' for purposes of evaluating First Amendment rights to use such streets for parades ... Therefore, the City's right to limit expressive activity on these streets is 'sharply circumscribed.' "

Asked whether he feels Augusta should have the event, legalities aside, Copenhaver said: "As a constitutional officer, I'm sworn to uphold the law."

The parade will be part of a larger festival, which will include a concert at the Jessye Norman Amphitheater featuring Grammy-winning R&B singer Thelma Houston and Frenchie Davis of American Idol .

Augusta Pride has a $4,550 contract with the Recreation and Parks Department to rent the amphitheater, the Augusta Common and three bulkheads on Riverwalk Augusta. Vice President Alejandro Wade-Coronado said he expects the event to draw 4,000 to 8,000 people, including visitors from Atlanta, Savannah and Charleston.

Last week, Wade-Coronado requested that the north side of Broad Street between Sixth and 10th streets, and 10th Street from Broad to Reynolds streets, be blocked off from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., and that Reynolds behind the common be closed from 6 a.m. to midnight. It required approval from the mayor, the sheriff's office, the fire department and the parks department, the latter three all signing off late last week or early this week.

Wade-Coronado, who met with the mayor Wednesday, said he's pleased with Copenhaver's decision, and Augusta Pride will be working to create a family event that educates the community about diversity.

"And while we're doing it, we're going to try to have a good time," he said.

Wade-Coronado said the city can expect a conservative event, with parade participants dressed in regular attire with none of the nudity or explicit displays seen in gay rights events in other parts of the country. However, all facets of the community -- straight, gay, lesbian, trans-gender and bisexual -- are welcome, so there will be drag queens and transvestites, but they'll be fully dressed, he said.

"We know where we live," he said. "This is a very conservative town, and we understand that."

The theme of the festival is "Community for All."

"We just want to be treated equally in Augusta," Wade-Coronado said. "I think we've been pushed way into the closet here."

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