NEW YORK — The organizers of the New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade said Wednesday they were lifting a ban on openly gay groups marching under their own banner, bringing to a close more than two decades of bitter protests and controversy that thrust an annual celebration into the national gay rights debate.
The decision is a striking reflection of the evolution of gay rights in the city and in American society, and it is a measure of changing attitudes in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.
Every year, the parade kicks off with a Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the most prominent Catholic church in the country, and the policy of banning gay groups from marching has long been seen by gay rights advocates as a reflection of the church’s hostility.
In recent months, Catholic officials have tried to emphasize the church’s acceptance of gays and lesbians as individuals, while defending the church’s opposition to same-sex marriage.
That rhetorical shift has been embraced by Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, who will serve as grand marshal for the parade next year.
“I have no trouble with the decision at all,” Dolan said at an evening news conference announcing his appointment as grand marshal. “I think the decision is a wise one.”
The parade organizers’ retreat comes after years of mounting political and corporate pressure, and as many states have legalized same-sex marriage.
Soon after taking office in January, Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, said he would not march as long as gay groups were banned. After the beer giant Guinness pulled its financial support for the most recent parade, other businesses have threatened to withdraw their support.
The pressure to make a change continued to mount as preparation began for next year’s parade, according to several people involved in the negotiations.
The change in policy was first reported by The Irish Voice.
Most notably, the organizers faced pressure from employees of NBCUniversal, which broadcasts the festivities and whose contract expires in 2015, to show that they were inclusive.
The first group to march in next year’s parade under a gay banner will be OUT@NBCUniversal — a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employee resource group.
On Wednesday morning, the organizers said that the NBC employees would be the only gay group permitted to march in the 2015 parade and that other groups would have to apply for 2016.
But on Wednesday night, John L. Lahey, the vice chairman of the parade, said other gay groups could still apply to march in next year’s parade but warned that space was already tight.
‘I have no trouble with the decision at all. I thinkthe decisionis a wise one.’
Even before the Declaration of Independence was signed and the Constitution was drafted, the Irish have gathered on the streets of New York to honor St. Patrick, the fifth-century missionary who is the patron saint of Ireland and of the Archdiocese of New York.
The change in policy comes at a time when the tone from the Vatican is also changing.
Last summer, Pope Francis signaled a shift in how Catholic leaders talk about homosexuality when he was asked about his views on gay rights: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
Other cities that stage St. Patrick’s Day parades, notably Boston, have also found themselves fighting over who is allowed to participate.
In 1995, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of Boston parade organizers who banned gay groups from marching.
And there were some who condemned New York’s decision to lift the ban and the endorsement by Dolan, who is the archbishop of New York.
“It is a shameful and sinful capitulation by the parade organizers and Cardinal Dolan,” Pat Archbold wrote in an opinion piece published by the National Catholic Register.
“If a parade that is meant to honor a great saint is being used to promote a sinful agenda, it should be canceled rather than allow it to be used in such a way.”