St. Patty's Parades without any Irish?

March 17, 2011

ShamrockWhen you think of St. Patrick’s Day parades, what comes to mind?

Shamrocks? Irish heritage? Green beer?  Leprechauns?  Learning about the existence of some of the most obscure organizations in the community?

According to a 1993 U.S. Supreme Court decision, you should also think of these parades as a rally intending to convey a message.

The decision, Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston, didn’t explicitly rule such, but effectively did.

For those not familiar with the case, it involved the South Boston St. Patrick’s Day Parade and a Massachusetts anti-discrimination statute

The anti-discrimination statute prohibits discrimination based on religion, national origin, sex, deafness and blindness, physical or mental disability, and sexual orientation in any place the public is welcome.

In 1992, the Irish-American Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Group of Boston (GLIB) was not allowed to participate in the parade because their registration form was “too late,” according to the Veteran’s Council, the group that administered the parade.

The next year, the registration form was changed to an “application,” and the Veteran’s Council stopped using city funds for the parade, which had historically drawn at least a third of its budget from the city.

These actions to “privatize” the parade were in preparation for the legal battle that followed.

GLIB sued the Veteran’s Council under the statute, and the issue throughout the cases the entire time within Massachusetts state court was whether the statute applied to the event.

In order for the statute to apply, the court would have to find that the parade constituted a public event.

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts analyzed several aspects of the parade, including the history of the event, the level of the involvement of the city of Boston (both before 1992 and subsequently), and the massive scale of the event (up to 20,000 participants and over a million spectators).

In the end, the state high court affirmed the lower court and ruled that the parade did indeed constitute a public place, thus the anti-discrimination statute applied.

In response to the ruling, the Veteran’s Council cancelled the 1994 St. Patrick’s Day Parade.  Needless to say, they also appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Supreme Court BuildingFinally, we get to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision.

The issue was framed by the Court as a fairly simple one: “whether Massachusetts may require private citizens who organize a parade to include among the marchers a group imparting a message the organizers do not wish to convey.”

Unsurprisingly, given how the issue was presented, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously for the Veteran’s Council.

Several law review pieces have been written discussing how this result came about, with one in particular pointing out that several important facts were completely ignored by the Supreme Court.

Anyhow, the upshot of the ruling is pretty significant, especially given the fact that the vast majority of St. Patrick’s Day parades are privately organized.

Because of the case, if a private organizer so chose, they could exclude Irish groups and Catholic groups from a St. Patrick’s Day parade.