NEW YORK Irish-American gays and lesbians are owed damages by a city that has unconstitutionally stifled their voice on St. Patrick's Day because it doesn't like their message, a lawyer told a jury as a trial opened this week.
"This case is about pride, a parade, politics and pretext," lawyer Steven Rawlings said Feb. 2 at the outset of his opening statement in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.
He said the voice of the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization had been unconstitutionally quieted as the city expressed dislike for the group and its message.
Rawlings asked the jury for a finding that the city had violated the group's rights to march and protest and for unspecified damages that "may help it get its voice back."
The city, though, bitterly contested Rawlings' recall of the history of the group's efforts to first join the parade and then protest against it after a federal judge ruled in 1993 that the parade organizers could limit participants.
"This is not a case about politics or pretext," said Virginia Waters, a city lawyer. "It's about an unreasonable group that wants perfection ... sort of like a child that wants what it wants when it wants it."
She noted that the city had repeatedly been rebuffed since 1991 as it tried to offer the organization numerous ways to protest the parade without interfering with one of the city's three largest parades.
In 1991, members of the gay and lesbian group marched with Mayor David Dinkins after they were permitted to march as individuals but not accompanied by a banner. The group was pelted with beer cans and Dinkins carried an umbrella for part of the parade as some members of the crowd and members of the group shouted at one another.
In 1992, the group was permitted to stage a parade of its own before the St. Patrick's Day parade. Each year afterward, the police refused to allow the group to march along the parade route prior to the parade and the group has refused to consider alternative times or venues for its march.
Waters said the group's objective remained to march in the parade and that was a goal that could not be realized.
She said the city is fair in the way it regulates 110 parades each year of more than 1,000 people in addition to 600 to 700 local community parades each year.
St. Patrick's Day presents unusual problems because of the size of the parade and the difficulty of allowing the gay and lesbian group to stage a separate parade without interfering with the setup for the larger parade.
"It is impossible in the city to allow every group to march exactly when it wants," she said. "This is a group that believes it can take the law into its own hands."
Ernest L. Matthews Jr., a lawyer for the Ancient Order of Hibernians, which organizes the parade each year, told the jury that permitting the gay and lesbian group to march on St. Patrick's Day would deny Hibernians their constitutional rights.
He said the parade organizers have always insisted that groups of parade participants not take a position contrary to the Catholic Church and not use the parade to cause confrontation or for commercial purposes.
Thus, he said, the parade has blocked Right-to-Life groups from marching with anti-abortion banners even though it is an issue the church supports.
"Protestants and Jews may march. People who hate the church may march, but not as a group," he said.
He said it was ironic to sit on the same side of the courtroom as the city, which once tried hard to encourage the Hibernians to let the gays and lesbians march as a group and later tried to oust the Hibernians as parade organizers for failing to do so.
"Yes, the city did a real flip-flop," he said, noting that the 1993 federal court ruling permitting the Hibernians to exclude groups forced its hand.
In a similar dispute over a St. Patrick's Day parade in Boston, the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1995 ruling in Hurley v. Irish American Gay Group of Boston overturned a Massachusetts state court ruling requiring parade organizers include gays. The high court said the requirement violated the parade organizers' First Amendment rights.