SALT LAKE CITY (AP) _ More than 10,000 people are expected at Salt Lake City's gay pride parade Sunday as gay marriage advocates gather to celebrate a historic year of progress in the conservative state.
Utah Pride Festival organizers say they expect this year's parade to be one of the biggest and most vibrant ever as gays and lesbians march for the first time since a federal judge overturned the state's same-sex marriage ban in December. That ruling is on hold, pending a decision from a federal appeals court.
The three couples who brought the lawsuit against Utah that led to historic ruling will be parade marshals. They will be followed by a float carrying many of the 1,000-plus same-sex couples who married after the ruling.
The parade, which starts at 10 a.m. in downtown Salt Lake City, caps a weekend of events that are part of the Utah Pride Festival. The Utah parade is one of many gay pride marches scheduled this month around the country.
``Our community right now is as strong or stronger than it has ever been,'' said John Netto, chairman of the board of the Utah Pride Center. ``We have so much commitment from our people that we cannot fail.''
Utah has become one of the focal points for the gay marriage movement since a federal judge in December overturned the state's same-sex marriage ban, triggering a string of similar rulings by judges in other states. The latest came Friday in Wisconsin, the 15th consecutive pro-gay marriage ruling in lower court cases since a landmark Supreme Court ruling last summer.
Sunday's parade in Salt Lake City will feature a Mormon group advocating for more acceptance of gays and lesbians. About 300-400 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints plan to march in their Sunday best: shirts and ties for men and dresses for women, said spokeswoman Erika Munson.
``We are encouraging Mormons to make their congregations and homes safe and welcoming places for gay and lesbian people,'' Munson said.
It is the third straight year they have been in the parade as they represent a growing movement of rank-and-file Mormons pushing for compassion and empathy for gay and lesbian Mormons. An estimated two-third of Utah's 2.9 million residents belong to the church, which has its worldwide headquarters in Salt Lake City.
The Mormon church's official stance toward gays and lesbians has softened in recent years, but the church still opposes gay marriage and teaches that homosexuality is a sin.
A local Boy Scouts troop will also march in the parade wearing their uniforms, risking punishment from Boy Scouts regional leaders. They marched last year too.
The parade features more than 125 groups, with leaders having turn away two dozen more due to space and time constraints, said Utah Pride Center spokesman Davey Stevenson.
``We've got groups of every stripe, color and shape coming,'' Stevenson said.
Added the event's entertainment director Matthew Landis: ``Salt Lake loves its gay people.''
The parade comes just days after Utah state officials announced they would appeal a ruling by a federal judge who ordered the state to recognize marriages that occurred over 17 days in late December and early January after a judge struck down the state's 2004 ban. The appeal is before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.
Netto lamented the fact that Utah state officials are appealing that ruling and the overturning of the state's ban. But despite the clouds of uncertainty, Netto said the increased social acceptance of gays and lesbians provides plenty of reason to celebrate.
``As our rights become more open and discussed, as we have the opportunity to present our personal studies, we are finding greater and greater acceptance in the community,'' Netto said. ``As we reach out with love, we get love in return.''