Court Backs Exclusion of Gays from Parade Event Is Form of Free Expression, Justices Say

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St. Patrick's Day parade sponsors have a free speech right to exclude homosexuals or any other group they disagree with, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday in a case from Boston.

A parade is a form of free expression, and the sponsor is the speaker who "has the autonomy to choose the content of his own message," the court held.

For the government to force parade organizers to include groups with whom they disagree "grates on the First Amendment, for it amounts to nothing less than a proposal to limit speech in the service of orthodox expression," Justice David H. Souter wrote.

In a separate free-speech case, the Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge to the year-old federal law that protects access to abortion clinics.

The involvement of gay and lesbian groups in St. Patrick's Day parades has been a big issue in recent years in Boston and New York City. In Boston, the courts forced parade organizers to include a homosexual group, but in New York the courts permitted sponsors to bar gays and lesbians. St. Louis Impact

The issue has been less visible in St. Louis, although a gay rights group protested in 1992 that it had been excluded from the St. Patrick's Day parade run in the Dogtown area by the Ancient Order of the Hibernians.

The separate parade in downtown St. Louis hasn't had controversy involving homosexual groups, says organizer Joseph McGlynn. But he welcomed the Supreme Court decision, saying it supported his group's practice of excluding any group with a political message - whether it was a Democratic ward organization or a pro-Irish Republican Army group. The last group that McGlynn remembers barring was made up of men from the Soulard neighborhood who marched as Girl Scouts in an "effeminate way."

In the case decided Monday in Washington, a Massachusetts court had ruled that the sponsors of the Boston parade violated the state public accommodations law by excluding the Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group. The Massachusetts court ordered the parade sponsor, the South Boston Allied War Veterans Council, to include the group in the 1992 and 1993 marches. In 1994, the sponsors canceled the parade rather than include the group.

This year, the sponsors made the parade an invitation-only event to protest the earlier court rulings. All sides agreed that the 1995 parade was expressive activity protected by the First Amendment and that the gay group could be excluded. …