Is it legal to let St. Patrick be St. Patrick? (Plus MZ zinger)

I guess that the crucial question — at this moment in time — is whether St. Patrick’s Day parades have anything to do with St. Patrick. In other words, are these events connected, in any meaningful way, with Catholic tradition, doctrine and history?

I know that, in the past, it has been easier to argue that these parades — especially in America’s major urban centers in the Northeast and upper Midwest — have been testimonies to Irish culture, pride and political clout. The archbishop may be there, but the essence of the event was found in the presence of local politicians who needed the votes of Irish laborers.

But what is the reality right now, at this moment in church-state history?

You can find some clues in the rather stock Reuters report about the pro-gay-rights pressures on Guinness — which were successful — to pull it’s sponsorship of the New York City parade.

On Friday, two other major beer companies, Sam Adams brewer Boston Beer Co and Heineken dropped their sponsorship of parades in Boston and New York, respectively, over the issue.

Representatives for the New York board of the Ancient Order of the Hibernians, which has run the parade for more than 150 years, could not be reached for comment on Sunday afternoon.

Earlier in the day Boston Mayor Marty Walsh skipped his city’s parade when he couldn’t negotiate a deal with organizers, the conservative Allied War Veteran’s Council, to allow members of MassEquality, one of Massachusetts’ largest gay activist groups, to join. …

Organizers of St. Patrick’s Day parades in New York and Boston, among the most liberal-leaning cities in the United States, have come under increasing criticism in recent years for banning openly gay marchers. Parade organizers argue that to do so would conflict with their Roman Catholic heritage. The Catholic church contends that homosexual activity is immoral.

Now in my humble opinion, I think it would help to know something about the Ancient Order of the Hibernians, since this organization is at the heart of this annual skirmish in the Culture Wars. I find it interesting that few of the mainstream stories that I saw this year about these events offered detailed information on this point. However, the group’s website, on the front page, notes:

We are the oldest and largest Irish Catholic organization in the United States. The AOH is a place to meet like minded Irish Americans who share the same values and beliefs. …

Through it’s charitable arm, Hibernian Charity, a 501c-3 not-for-profit, the AOH is able to raise money for a number of Irish and Catholic causes in the this country and in Ireland.

Whatever it’s symbolism found in this organization, in terms of culture and politics, there does seem to be a religion hook in there somewhere.

Thus, a key journalism question is this: Does this religious group still have a right to march in public streets while declining to openly undercut the doctrines of its church? In other words, does the “free exercise of religion” still include public displays of faith?

Has anyone seen that issue raised in St. Patrick’s coverage this year?

This issue is openly discussed at the Irish Queers website, a center for activism against the beliefs of the Hibernians:

More than twenty years ago, the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization sought to march in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade on Fifth Avenue and was excluded. In 1993, parade organizers used a court case to declare it a private, religious procession whose anti-gay message would be controverted by the presence of an identifiable Irish LGBTQ group. …

From then on, City leaders supportive of LGBTQ rights and dignity have boycotted the parade. But the Police Commissioner and thousands of uniformed police, organized by their precincts, have marched every year in this explicitly anti-gay parade. Firefighters and other City personnel also march every year in their official capacity.

The organizers of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade have established a constitutional right to their exclusionary religious procession, but the participation of police and firefighters is a clear violation of the City’s Human Rights Law. …

Can someone help me out here? Are the police in the New York City parade marching as participants or as police who are required to be there to promote public safety in a massive public event in the heart of the city (or some combination of these two roles)? Also, when New York City holds gay pride events, are many police there as a matter of duty, in addition to those who are freely choosing to march because of their support of the cause?

Thus, if the gay activists win this debate, would this “exclusionary religious procession” have to be held without police assistance? Would that be legal or are all First Amendment protected events of this kind required to — at least visually — include on-duty police in uniform? In other words, is there a chance that even a liturgical parade in honor of St. Patrick could be banned in New York City?

This might make for an interesting story.

Writing at the conservative Catholic magazine Crisis, Matthew Hennessey notes:

As a legal matter, shutting down the parade would be complicated. … Judges have ruled in the past that the First Amendment allows the parade committee to determine who marches and who doesn’t. And, thanks to its longevity, the parade enjoys an exemption from the city’s normal permitting process. The council would have to amend the city’s administrative code in order to boot the St. Patrick’s Day Parade off 5th Avenue. That would perhaps be easier than pursuing a human rights case against the parade’s organizers, but it would be a mistake. …

Sometimes a parade is just a parade.

Once again, my central journalistic question is this: At this point in time, to what degree are St. Patrick’s Day parades events that include religious content and, thus, are linked to the free exercise of religion? If they are defined as religious, then the question can be stated this way: Do Catholic groups have a right to hold Catholic parades of any kind in cities such as New York City? Would a Palm Sunday liturgical rite be legal on public sidewalks and streets? Can the Eastern Orthodox march at midnight during the great rites of Pascha (Eastern in the West)?

Like I said, there could be a story there.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Yes, yes, yes! Your GetReligionistas saw that amazing correction attached to one of the New York Times reports linked to this controversy. It’s just that, once again, GetReligionista emeritus M.Z. Hemingway has already jumped on that topic and stomped that sucker flat!

What correction? This one:

An earlier version of this article misquoted a comment from Malachy McCourt on St. Patrick. Mr. McCourt said, “My attitude is, St. Patrick banished the snakes from Ireland and they all came here and they became conservatives.” He did not say St. Patrick banished the slaves from Ireland.

– The New York Times, March 17, 2014

With that doozie in mind, combined with the now infamous Easter story correction from last year, the Divine Mrs. M.Z. has produced — as a work of fiction (perhaps) the ultimate New York Times religion-story correction.

So go read it. Right now.

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • wlinden

    Is the reference to police there keeping order, or the participation of the police (and other) Emerald Societies?

    • Ray Ingles

      The reference is to police participating in the parade itself, not to police maintaining order. It’s kind of hard to maintain order while marching and playing an instrument, for example.

      I honestly have no idea how tmatt missed that.

      • tmatt

        Actually, I said the language could be interpreted either way. Police would be there in both roles. I was not sure if parade opponents were seeking a ban on police in an OFFICIAL role as well.

        • Ray Ingles

          Since the quote you yourself produced talks about “the participation of police and firefighters”, I really don’t grasp how you construe that they aren’t talking about “marching as participants”. I mean, I truly fail to see how trombonists are “required to be there to promote public safety”.

  • Julia B

    I can’t find it now, but I did see a news article about this in which a person being interviewed pointed out that the Hibernians don’t allow a float promoting hetersexual sex, either. They want a family-friendly parade without a Mardi Gras or PrideFest atmosphere.
    Seems to me that St Patrick’s Day has become so associated with drunkeness in the average person’s mind that people don’t understand why a flashy gay float shouldn’t be allowed.
    At the huge non-Hibernian St Patrick’s Day parade here in St Louis that runs through a nightculb area a TV reporter asked numerous attendees clad in green: do you know who St Patrick was? Blank stares from all of them.

    • Reformed Catholic

      On the local CBS station’s website, there was a blurb that the local organizers would have no problems with gays marching, as long as they marched as an organization, without any political connotations or signs.

      Evidently they didn’t want to do that.


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