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Parade Blarney

eye on the news

Parade Blarney

Organizers of New York’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration renege on a promise to allow pro-life groups to march. March 13, 2015
Photo by any.nyc

“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.” That was my ironic lead to an article last fall about the ending of the parade’s so-called “gay ban.” In fact, I noted, there was never a gay ban at the parade. Rather, there was an evenhanded policy under which no political or ideological-advocacy groups with missions unrelated to Ireland were allowed to march. The policy covered right-to-life groups as well as gay groups.

In caving to pressure to allow a gay-rights group to march under its own banner, the parade committee suggested that it was abandoning the old policy across-the-board, and that pro-life as well as gay groups would henceforth be welcome. I criticized this apparent compromise, arguing that it would open a can of worms, inviting demands for “inclusion” and threats of litigation from groups having nothing to do with Irish culture. Well, the parade committee has since made clear that it never intended to seek a culture-war compromise, but rather to switch sides and curry favor with elite opinion by thumbing its nose at traditional Catholic parade-goers.

From the moment of its September 2014 announcement that a gay group at NBC, which broadcasts the parade, would march this year, the parade committee has sent conflicting signals about the inclusion of pro-life groups. Now, just days before the parade, it has become apparent that the committee has reneged on its commitment. No right-to-life group will be permitted to march.

Prior to announcing the policy change, parade organizers enlisted the support of Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, the most vociferous defender of the old policy. They assured him that the policy had been changed for all advocacy groups and that a pro-life group would march in 2015. Based on this assurance, Donohue initially issued a conciliatory statement accepting the inclusion of the gay group. The September announcement, however, contained no mention of a pro-life group, and, according to a subsequent Wall Street Journal story, “a parade official was vague when asked about this commitment.” Afterward, parade spokesman William O’Reilly said a right-to-life group in fact would be allowed to march. He confirmed in an e-mail to the Journal that “[t]he committee will now let a pro-life group march with a banner.” O’Reilly reiterated to the National Catholic Register that “the failure to mention a potential pro-life group marching was an error” and added that a “pro-life group will be looked at very much favorably by the committee. We look forward to seeing their application.”

A few days later, though, O’Reilly was undercut by committee vice chairman John L. Lahey, who is president of Quinnipiac University and will become parade chairman next year. “That won’t be happening,” Lahey said of the idea of a right-to-life group marching. “What we want to do is keep 2015 focused on the gesture of goodwill we made towards the gay community.” Attempting to explain this shift, O’Reilly said that no pro-life application had been received in the few days between his statement and Lahey’s, and that the parade was now full.

Lahey’s statement led Donohue to withdraw the Catholic League from the parade, saying that he had been “double-crossed.” But the earlier signals from O’Reilly led one small pro-life organization, the Children First Foundation (CFF), which promotes adoption rather than abortion, to apply. The parade’s reaction to this application continued the mixed messaging. In a January 22, 2015, rejection letter to CFF president Elizabeth Rex, parade committee chairman John Dunleavey stated cryptically that “[t]he committee has selected a Right to Life group which will be lead [sic] by the 4th Degree Knights of Columbus Honor Guard.” However, parade officials haven’t identified this group. Rex has been unable to find any pro-life group that had been asked to march. And a spokesman for the Knights of Columbus was unaware of another group marching with, or led by, the Knights at the parade, but said that as a general rule, Knights’ honor guards do not march under the banner of another group.

Rex thinks the group Dunleavey was referring to in his letter was the Knights of Columbus itself—a Catholic fraternal organization that has always marched and for which opposition to abortion is only a small part of its mission. Rex suspects that the parade committee’s attitude is that the Knights are pro-life, so there’s no need for a pro-life group to march under its own banner. If true, it would be ironic. This was the very argument the parade once used to justify its old policy against gay groups marching under their own banners.

The parade’s rejection of Rex ought to concern moderates who support gay rights but also support pluralism and mutual respect. It would have been easy and non-controversial for the parade to stick to the compromise and accommodate Rex’s CFF as the pro-life representative. She tells me that realistically she would have brought 50 to 100 marchers to a parade that claims as many as 250,000. Their banners wouldn’t even have been aggressively anti-abortion, but would have instead merely contained the CFF logo—a cartoon drawing of two children’s faces inside a yellow circle with the words “Choose Life” above the anodyne text “Raising Funds and Awareness for Adoption and Safe Havens.” And CFF’s presence would have had no impact on the gay group.

Yet it was too much for Lahey, the college president who now effectively controls the parade. As the head of one of the nation’s “top up-and-coming schools,” Lahey is presumably even more attuned than most to winning the approval of the academic and social elite, so his concern that nothing dim the parade’s “focus on the gesture of goodwill towards the gay community” is unsurprising. It may not win him any brownie points, though. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio and gay activists continue to boycott the parade because of its failure to include more gay groups.

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