Gay groups in US seek the right to take part in St Patrick's Day marches

Boston and New York, with strong Irish roots, again caught in row over whether homosexuals should be allowed to join the party as a group

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 February, 2014, 8:46pm
UPDATED : Friday, 28 February, 2014, 8:46pm


To a backdrop of continuing legal fights over same-sex marriage and the growing acceptance of homosexuals and their rights, there remains an area where gay participation in the US remains controversial: the annual St Patrick's Day parade.

The parade is a celebration of Irish culture and social power, yet in recent years it also has been the arena for protest over whether gays should be allowed to participate as a group.

The latest round in the battle involves two key centres of Irish identity: Boston and New York.

Boston Mayor Martin Walsh said this week he had been trying to broker a deal that would allow gay and lesbian groups to march in the parade this month in South Boston.

If the gay veterans group was not allowed to march, Walsh said he would boycott the parade, following former mayor Thomas Menino, who refused to march while he was in office.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio also has said he will not join the parade because it bans gay groups.

De Blasio will become the first mayor in decades to not take part in the March 17 parade down Fifth Avenue. "Equality comes first," said Walsh, the son of Irish immigrants who marched last year as a state representative. "The fact that it's 2014, I certainly hope we're able to come to an understanding. It's long overdue."

But his message was not well received by parade organisers.

"No, definitely not," said John Hurley, the long-time force behind the parade who won a unanimous 1995 Supreme Court victory sanctioning his right to exclude gay and lesbian groups. "Not when you have a 9-to-nothing decision in the Supreme Court of the United States. Walsh is not in a position to overturn that."

The court ruled unanimously that the private sponsors of Boston's St Patrick's Day parade had a constitutional right to exclude marchers whose message they rejected.

Justice David Souter said in his opinion that a parade was a form of expression with which the government may not interfere, even for the purpose of preventing discrimination.

"If I march in that parade, I will be very happy," Walsh said. "If I'm not marching in that parade, it will be unfortunate and it will be because of a couple of people who would not accept this application."

In New York, the St Patrick's Day Parade, which bills itself as the oldest civilian parade in the world, dating from the 18th century, is an almost sacred tradition, closely tied to the political power of the Irish immigrants who helped reshape the city through the 19th century.

It has always been closely tied to Christian churches, especially to Catholic Church. (Indeed because it is a feast day during Lent, a Catholic can drink on St Patrick's Day without a trace of guilt.)

It is that tie to Christianity that played a role in blocking the acceptance of gay groups. The church has long opposed same-sex marriage, but recent polls show that is easing among parishioners.

Politically, gays have gained significant victories on same-sex marriage and other fronts, and have become politically influential by turning out votes and raising funds.

That has made it politically safer for politicians to skip the parade, citing the exclusion of gay groups.