At a meeting swirling with emotion, the Westminster City Council voted 5-0 to issue a permit to organizers of the 2014 Tet parade -- even if they refuse to allow LGBT people to march in the event.
The entire council voiced sympathy with those who might be barred from the celebration. But Mayor Tri Ta said that as elected officials, the council members were required to uphold 1st Amendment rights, allowing a gathering that's considered free speech. However, he added, "we want to see the unity. ... Let's talk to find a solution."
Members of the most outspoken group at Wednesday's meeting, Viet Rainbow of Orange County, challenged the Vietnamese American Federation of Southern California -- which applied for the special event permit -- calling it "an organization that has a history of discrimination, and has the potential to be a liability to the city."
Cathy Lam, speaking for Parents of Rainbow Children, a support group, pleaded with the City Council.
"We want everyone in the communities to treat our children with mutual respect, as they would expect us to do the same for theirs," she said. Surrounded by other mothers, she added: "This walk in the parade is not just about LGBT rights. It is neither about freedom of choices nor freedom of speech, but it is about our freedom from oppression, our freedom to be ourselves with dignity."
Council members attacked the federation for not being inclusive, but following advice from Westminster City Atty. Dick Jones, said their hands were "legally tied."
The back-and-forth, which lasted for more than an hour at the meeting during public comment, didn't sit well with Councilwoman Diana Carey, who said she had "spent my whole damn life fighting against discrimination."
"But having said that, I took an oath to support the Constitution and 1st Amendment rights," she said. "As egregious as this is, I have to support this.”
Echoing Carey, Councilman Andy Quach shared his concern that the controversy tarnishes the image of Westminster, where city officials stepped up to organize the parade in years past. Now, facing a budget deficit of more than $3 million, leaders canceled both parades for Founders Day and Tet, opening up the way for private organizers.
Council members Quach and Margie Rice denounced those in the crowd of nearly 100 for putting "us on the defensive again."
It is the second year the council has had to struggle with the issue of LGBT exclusion.
Nghia X. Nguyen, who heads the federation, said his group applied to run the event "to share the traditional and social values of Vietnamese that has been passed on from generation to generation." At the urging of city leaders, he agreed to sit down and talk with Viet Rainbow to find compromise.
"We are not difficult and do not want to be difficult," he said later. "The conditions we set will be applied to everyone in the parade."
He referred to demands that LGBT participants should not show affection in public, along with not carrying signs that reflect political identity.
The LGBTs "abuse the Tet parade to show off," added Khoi Pham, a federation member who noted he actually voted in favor of their participation in a November meeting before his organization applied for an event permit. "I have so much respect for freedom, but I still believe their group used this opportunity to spread propaganda."
Hieu Nguyen, a founder of Viet Rainbow, said he and his supporters are being unfairly targeted and that any code of conduct must be uniform.
"We cannot be silent anymore because we represent people who are still hiding, still living in the darkness," he said.
If there's no LGBT presence in the parade, he and his peers asked the City Council to boycott the event. Jeff LeTourneau, who chairs the LGBT caucus for Orange County's Democratic party, backs him, saying his group unanimously passed a resolution pushing for all public officials to also withdraw from the event.
"This is so much bigger than this city," LeTourneau said, adding that LGBTs statewide "are watching."