WASHINGTON -- Allowing Irish-American groups to ban gays from their St. Patrick's Day parades, the Supreme Court yesterday gave parade organizers a constitutional right to keep out those whose views they don't like.
The unanimous decision goes beyond celebrations of St. Patrick's Day and reaches Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and other parades year-round when they are organized by private groups. The issue has arisen, for example, over July 4 parades in Catonsville, where organizers have banned homosexual veterans.
However, the ruling apparently would not apply to parades sponsored and organized by the government itself -- such as the presidential inaugural.
Delving deeply into what is a parade, the court said it is not just people moving from here to there, but groups that give voice to particular messages -- with First Amendment protection against interference by government or unwanted outsiders.
Just as newspaper editors have a First Amendment right to decide what they print, the court said, private organizers of parades have a right to select the "contingents to make a parade. . . . Every participating unit affects the message conveyed by the private organizers."
In Catonsville, a group called the Gay and Lesbian Veterans of Maryland Inc. has sought unsuccessfully for three years to march behind its banner in the community's Fourth of July parade. George Abendschoen, director of the Catonsville Celebrations Committee, which has organized the parade for more than four decades, described yesterday's court ruling as "100 percent" correct.
He said the gay veterans group has not contacted the committee this year, adding: "It's a dead issue now. The Supreme Court has spoken."
Justice David H. Souter, speaking for the court, said states and cities may not dictate who will be included in a march on city streets by trying to turn a parade into "a place of public accommodation" and assuring everyone that they are welcome.
The decision dealt directly with an annual parade on the streets of South Boston -- an area known for its concentration of Irish-Americans. Since 1947, the St. Patrick's Day parade there has been run by South Boston veterans' groups.
Beginning in 1992, a group of Irish-American homosexuals sought to join the parade to show pride in both their Irish heritage and their homosexuality, and to show solidarity with homosexual groups who were rebuffed in attempts to march down New York's Fifth Avenue in the St. Patrick's Day parade there.
The South Boston organizers barred them, but state courts ordered them included. They marched that year and in 1993. But in 1994, the organizers canceled the parade rather than include the gay, lesbian and bisexual marchers. This year, the march was staged without homosexuals after the organizers went to federal court and got a judge's permission to exclude the homosexuals.
That put the federal court in conflict with the Massachusetts courts.
The Supreme Court, striking down the state court orders to include the homosexual marchers, said the message that a parade conveys "is distilled from the individual presentations along the way, and each unit's expression is perceived by spectators as part of the whole."
The court stressed, however, that parade organizers do not have to refine their message so that it conveys a specific theme worthy of First Amendment protection. Just as the First Amendment protects the mixed messages sent by the paintings of Jackson Pollock, the music of Arnold Schonberg, or the Jabberwocky verse of Lewis Carroll, it protects a parade with many messages, Justice Souter stressed.
All the messages, however, must be those that the sponsors want expressed, the court added.
Justice Souter said the court's ruling did not endorse the Irish-Americans' anti-gay sentiment, but was based "on the nation's commitment to protect freedom of speech."
One potential effect of the ruling, beyond parades, is that it threatens state university "speech codes" that ban student expression offensive to racial or religious minorities and women. Justice Souter's opinion spoke out against efforts by government institutions to promote "an approved message" or discourage "a disfavored one."
In another dispute over free-speech rights, the court turned down the first case to reach it over the constitutionality of the year-old federal law that seeks to protect abortion clinics from violence and blockades.
Joyce Woodall, a grandmother arrested for praying outside an Alexandria, Va., clinic last year, contended in an appeal that the law interfered with her First Amendment right to express her opposition to abortion.