The New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee announced last week that it was lifting its longstanding ban on pro-life groups marching in the parade. You hadn’t heard about this, and didn’t know there was such a ban? Well, that’s understandable, given how the media has covered the 20-year effort by gay-activist groups to join the parade, culminating in last week’s frenzy of press excitement about the ending of the so-called “gay ban.” In fact, there never was a “gay ban” at the parade. Nor was there a “pro-life ban.” There was, and still is, a rule that the only banners that marchers can carry “are ones identifying the [marching] unit or [saying] ‘England Out of Ireland.’” And while this rule on its face doesn’t preclude either gay groups or pro-life groups from marching (so long as their signs simply read “Irish Gay Organization” or “Irish Right-to-Life,” rather than, e.g., “Support Gay Marriage” or “Ban Abortion”), parade organizers have long interpreted it as giving rise to a broader policy, under which no political or ideological advocacy groups with missions unrelated to Ireland can march. Under this policy, right-to-life groups, like gay groups, have always been “banned” from marching.
That changed with last week’s announcement that, as a “gesture of goodwill to the LGBT community,” a gay group at NBC, which broadcasts the parade, would be included in the march next year. Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights—a lonely voice defending the parade policy on gay groups and pointing out that it extended to all unrelated advocacy groups—issued a conciliatory statement in response, saying that parade organizers had assured him that pro-life groups “as well as others” would now be allowed to march. A parade spokesman confirmed this. The effort “to keep politics—of any kind—out of the parade in order to preserve it as a . . . unified cultural event” had “[p]aradoxically . . . ended up politicizing the parade,” the organizers stated.
But in fact, the politicization of the parade is just beginning with the new open-admissions policy. The question arose: if pro-life groups can march, what about pro-choice groups? The parade committee was noncommittal. “Anyone can apply,” said a spokesman. This response led Donohue to retract his earlier acquiescence, but it wasn’t enough to satisfy NARAL Pro-Choice New York, which warned that abortion rights groups must be permitted to march. Meantime, other gay groups, including the Irish Queers, blasted the “closed-door deal” that made the NBC contingent the sole gay organization to march next year—though apparently all groups will be allowed to apply in the future.
The Irish Queers may have a point in criticizing the selection of OUT@NBCUniversal, a group it accurately describes as having no “relationship with the Irish community.” For in opening up the parade to every ideological cause, the organizers are opening themselves up to a host of political and legal problems. Removing the requirement that participants have some Irish nexus will just make these problems worse. On what basis can the parade now exclude groups opposing police misconduct, or groups defending the police? Is the St. Patrick’s Day Parade the right forum to debate the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown?
Opening the parade to all comers also threatens to reignite litigation wars that the Supreme Court seemingly put an end to in its 1995 decision in Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian & Bisexual Group of Boston, which upheld the First Amendment right of St. Patrick’s Day Parade organizers to exclude gay and other groups. The court battles in New York, Boston, and other cities prior to Hurley often turned on whether the parades were deemed religious or cultural events entitled to First Amendment protection or secular “public accommodations” subject to local gay-rights laws. While Hurley seems to have established a clear rule that parades are protected whether or not they have a distinct religious, cultural, or political message, a civil rights lawyer can probably find enough wiggle room in the opinion to file a complaint on behalf of a rejected group—especially now that the New York parade’s organizers have disclaimed any intent to “preserve it as a unified cultural event.”
The catchphrase in some conservative quarters that gays seek special rights rather than equal rights is often simplistic. On this issue, though, it’s always hit the nail right on the head. The parade committee had a neutral policy, upheld by the Supreme Court, of keeping all unrelated political-advocacy groups out of the march. In giving in to corporate pressure to accommodate one demographic group, the committee is opening a can of worms and making a big mistake.