More Controversy Over the NYC St. Patrick’s Day Parade

The Irish are a people known for their pithy proverbs. Well, here’s one the committee that organizes the New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade should take to heart: There’s nothing so bad that it couldn’t be worse.

As part of a well-publicized “compromise,” the committee has said it will allow both a gay advocacy group and an explicitly pro-life group to march in this year’s parade. The gay advocacy group was selected back in September. The 2015 parade is five weeks away. As of this writing, the identity of the pro-life group remains a mystery.

Last fall, the parade gave the world a master class in rank appeasement. After decades of principled opposition to the braying demands of groups like the Irish Gay and Lesbian Organization and its offspring, Irish Queers, the committee caved under pressure from its broadcast partner and announced OUT@NBCUniversal would be allowed to march under a banner identifying the sexual orientation of its members. Beginning in 2016, according to parade officials, other gay groups will be “free to apply” to march in the parade under banners proclaiming their predilections.

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The parade committee called its decision “a gesture of goodwill to the LGBT community in our continuing effort to keep the parade above politics.” But the gay groups were not satisfied. The executive director of Empire State Pride Agenda called the announcement “disappointing and self-serving,” since the application and selection processes were not open to the public. Irish Queers has said, “There is no change. This is not progress. This is a farce.” The group continues to call on New York City mayor Bill de Blasio to forbid NYPD and FDNY officers to wear their uniforms while marching in what Irish Queers calls an “explicitly anti-gay parade.”

Make no mistake: It’s not an ineffable longing to march up Fifth Avenue to the sound of fife and drum that motivates these groups. They are propelled, rather, by a deep desire to tar Catholics as bigots, and so to make them, their views, and their Church completely unacceptable to polite society.

For years, the parade’s policy on the matter of banners was elegantly simple: Nobody marches under a political banner. This gave parade organizers something like plausible deniability against the charge that they were deliberately discriminating against anyone. Gays were never prohibited from marching in the parade. They could march—and they did—but as members of one or another of the approved organizations. In other words, gays could march under a banner reading “County Donegal Association of New York” or “Westchester County Firefighters Emerald Society Pipe Band” but not “Irish Queens of Western Queens.”

The lone exception to the banner policy was for banners that read “England Get Out of Ireland.” It seems everyone associated with the parade—gay or straight—could agree on that.

Significantly, the no-political-banners policy also covered pro-life groups. Last year’s announcement of the change in policy lifted the hopes of such groups that they would also be given an opportunity to march. In an interview with in September, parade vice chairman John L. Lahey appeared to shoot that notion down. “That won’t be happening,” he said. Catholic League president Bill Donohue promptly announced that his organization, which had marched in the parade for 20 years, would not participate in 2015. Donohue claims he was told privately that the change in policy would, in fact, cover both gay and pro-life groups.

Then, lo and behold, a few days later, parade spokesman William O’Reilly claimed that Lahey had erred, and a pro-life group would indeed be allowed to march. It was starting to seem as if the parade committee was making it up as they went along. Not a good sign for those who supported and defended the old policy at the urging of steadfast Catholic leaders like John Cardinal O’Connor and Edward Cardinal Egan. One can only wonder how Timothy Cardinal Dolan, this year’s Grand Marshal, is taking all of this. Is he on board with the policy to placate the Church’s critics while vexing her natural allies?

Shortly after the changes in policy were announced, Elizabeth Rex of the Children First Foundation filed an application to march in the 2015 parade under a pro-life banner. Children First promotes adoption and has for years lobbied New York State to allow the issuance of a “Choose Life” license plate. The group says it has always wanted to march in the parade, but never bothered to apply because of the no-banners policy. In a letter dated January 22, 2015, parade chairman John T. Dunleavey informed Rex that her application had been rejected. “The committee has selected a Right to Life group which will be lead [sic] by the 4th Degree Knights of Columbus Honor Guard,” he wrote. “Cardinal Dolan has been made aware of this.”

Oddly, no one seems to know the name of this “Right to Life group.” I called O’Reilly, who told me he was no longer working with the parade.

Joe Zwilling, Dolan’s spokesman at the Archdiocese of New York, punted. “Any decisions and statements about who is marching in the Parade are from the Parade Committee,” he wrote in response to an e-mail request for comment. “The archdiocese is not involved in that process, and we would let them make any announcement they wish to make before making any comment of our own.”

A spokesman for the Supreme Council of the Knights of Columbus told me he didn’t know the specifics of this case, but, that as a general rule, honor guards march representing the Knights of Columbus specifically, rather than under the banner of another organization.

A number of other sources with deep knowledge of the New York pro-life scene told me they hadn’t heard of a local group being selected.

Multiple calls to Dunleavey at the parade committee’s headquarters in the Bronx were not returned.

So what gives? Has the New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade committee selected a pro-life group or not? And will the group that marches be a previously banned group, like the Children’s First Foundation or New Yorkers for Life? Or is the parade committee hoping to pass off an outfit that has always been allowed to march—such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians or the Knights of Columbus—as its token pro-life organization?

The parade is in the midst of a leadership change. Lahey—who is president of Quinnipiac University—will take the reins from Dunleavey after this year’s parade. The new boss evidently sees little profit in keeping faith with the parade’s Catholic roots. But if the policy now is to allow gay groups to march, while giving pro-lifers the runaround, it’s hard to see how the parade will succeed in staying above politics.


  • Matthew Hennessey

    Matthew Hennessey is a writer from New Canaan, CT, and a graduate of Hunter College and Fordham University. You can follow him on Twitter @matthennessey.

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