The Anoka Halloween committee finds itself in a dust-up for doing what it says it always does: reject groups that want to march in its annual parade.

This year, though, officials' silence about why a group of gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual kids were turned away has some questioning its selection criteria.

Members of the youth group Justin's Gift were disappointed when they learned that their application to march in the parade was declined, but they assumed the organizers' decision was rooted in logistics, said Jefferson Fietek, the group's vice president.

Parents and community members wondered aloud whether the group formed in the aftermath of a gay teen's suicide was turned down because of fear of controversy, or worse, because of anti-gay bias. When their concerns -- and eventual media inquiries -- were stonewalled, the situation began to feel weird, Fietek said.

"We didn't want to go there," he said. "But just based on their lack of willingness to work with reporters and community members who are asking questions, it's starting to really make us feel like 'Is there something else going on here?' It feels like it shouldn't have turned into the thing it's turning into."

The parade rejection takes on added sting after more than two years of controversy and hurt created by allegations of gay-related bullying in the schools that included a lawsuit -- settled in March -- against the Anoka-Hennepin school district, filed by gay students who felt that persistent bullying wasn't being adequately addressed.

A self-identified mom and paraprofessional who works in the Anoka-Hennepin schools created an online petition urging parade organizers to reverse their decision. It had gotten more than 1,400 signatures by Wednesday evening, from all over the country.

The parade is one of the highlights in a month of scheduled events in Anoka, which bills itself as the Halloween Capital of the World.

Anoka Halloween President Jeremy McFarland said 28 groups were denied requests to march in this year's parade, which he said the city always limits to three hours. Typically the parade includes 180 groups, and this year has "a large volume" of requests from marching bands, which typically take longer to march, given their size. "We had to take this into consideration when processing applications in order to meet the time limit," McFarland said in a prepared statement.

McFarland would not answer questions about the group's criteria for selecting participants or elaborate on the other groups that were turned down. He also did not address questions about bias in the committee's decision.

The committee has no formal agreement with the city on the length of the parade. City Manager Tim Cruikshank theorized that although a time limit isn't written via ordinance, it's become written in tradition.

"People don't like to sit there for a lengthy period of time," he said. "Years ago, some very wise volunteer citizen of our community said we should never go longer than three hours. It was a practice, based on experience and handed down over time."

Police Chief Phil Johanson also said his officers have not had a responsibility to keep the parade under a certain time limit.

Meagan Davitt, 13, an eighth-grader at Anoka Middle School for the Arts, said she was disappointed the group wouldn't be able to participate in the parade, especially given all of the conflict the area has seen over the past couple of years.

"Letting Justin's Gift into the parade would be like telling society, 'It's getting better. We're doing OK. We're trying to make everything work,'" she said.

She said she felt as though the committee was injecting issues of sexuality into the parade. "Sexuality shouldn't matter to anybody except for the person whose sexuality it is."

Tammy Aaberg, founder and president of the group that was named for her son, Justin, said she's still trying to look for the positive. The dust-up has garnered lots of support for students, and she's busy planning for a Halloween party the group is holding Oct. 20 at First Congregational UCC, 1923 3rd Av., Anoka.

"It's too bad we didn't make it in this year, for whatever reason," she said. "But we're going to have a fun Halloween."

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409