The Belle of Baton Rouge Casino Atrium was packed Saturday for the eighth annual Baton Rouge Pride Festival, which has grown from a modest church picnic at Forest Park to a six-hour celebration with musical performances, relationship blessings and a march afterward for equality.

“(The festival) gives people the ability to be out and proud of who they are in an atmosphere where they know they’re welcome,” said Tom Merrill, the festival’s chairman. “People don’t always have that in their jobs or wherever else through the rest of the year.”

Baton Rouge Pride comes this year as the Baton Rouge Metro Council prepares to vote in late July on an ordinance that would ban discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations based on categories that include sexual orientation and gender identity. Shreveport and New Orleans have similar ordinances.

Meanwhile, a U.S. District Court Judge in New Orleans announced last week that he would decide whether Louisiana should allow gay couples to wed and not just rule on whether the state should recognize gay marriages from other states — leading some to hope for sweeping legalization across Louisiana.

Hundreds of people attended the annual festival, which featured performances by female impersonators like the Austin Baptist Women and such artists as gay Christian country singer Shawn Thomas and Princess Kutt.

The Rev. Keith Mozingo, of Metropolitan Community Church, wearing a rainbow stole over his white church robe, led a blessing of relationships. He blessed several dozen couples who had crowded in front of the stage.

“From now on, I would like to be doing mass weddings, and it could happen next year,” Mozingo told the cheering crowd.

One of the longest-running couples to raise their hands was Maureen Wilkinson and Mary Ellen Strain, who met 45 years ago when they were teenagers. Wilkinson said they weren’t sure what to expect when they moved to Baton Rouge from Philadelphia eight years ago, but that their friends and neighbors have been accepting.

“It’s as close as we get to getting married right now,” Strain said of the blessing.

Attendees said the festival was just the latest display of how rapidly Baton Rouge has grown more tolerant. A majority of respondents in a 2013 poll by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation said they were in favor of gay marriage.

Cass Felps, president of First Thursday Social Group, said he did not come out as gay until he was 48, after he had married a woman and had two children.

When he was growing up in Baton Rouge, he said, being gay “was the deepest, darkest secret you ever had.” Since then, enough has changed that he no longer sees a need to hide his life partner of six years from customers during his work as a remodeling contractor. He said he and his partner traveled to Iowa, where gay marriage is legal, to officially tie the knot eight months ago.

Despite some changes in attitudes over the years, Baton Rouge has still shown some resistance to accepting openly gay and transgender people.

The Metro Council rejected a non-binding tolerance resolution in 2007 and later efforts to pass anti-discrimination measures failed in the wake of intense opposition from religious and conservative groups such as the Louisiana Family Forum.

Last year, the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office apologized for using a Louisiana anti-sodomy law to arrest gay men who agreed to sex during sting operations. The law remains on the books in Louisiana even though the US Supreme Court deemed it unconstitutional in 2003.

At this year’s Baton Rouge Pride, about 20 protesters gathered near the festival’s entrance with megaphones and picket signs. A handful of protesters got into shouting matches with some festival attendees. The arguments never turned physical, said Cpl. L’Jean McKneely, a police spokesman.