NEW YORK – Organizers of the world's largest St. Patrick's Day Parade say they're ending a ban and allowing a gay group to march under its own banner for the first time.
The prohibition on identified gay groups in the centuries-old New York parade had made participation a political issue. Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio refused to march this year, and Guinness beer dropped its sponsorship.
The parade committee, in a statement made available to The Associated Press, said on Wednesday that OUT(at)NBCUniversal, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender support group at the company that broadcasts the parade, would be marching up Manhattan's Fifth Avenue on March 17 under an identifying banner.
It's unclear how the group was chosen: whether OUT(at)NBCUniversal, which is described on its website as "the affinity group for LGBT & Straight Ally employees at NBCUniversal," was invited by the organizers or applied. Parade directors voted unanimously to include the group, the statement said.
Other gay groups can apply to march in future years, spokesman Bill O'Reilly said.
In the past, organizers said gays were free to march but only with other groups and not with banners identifying them as gay. Most marching units in the parade carry identifying banners. There are about 320 units in next year's parade, the committee said.
The committee said its "change of tone and expanded inclusiveness is a gesture of goodwill to the LGBT community in our continuing effort to keep the parade above politics."
The statement said the parade was "remaining loyal to church teachings," and O'Reilly said Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who is to be the parade's grand marshal next year, was "very supportive" of the change.
Dolan said last year he supported the participation of gay people.
"I know that there are thousands and thousands of gay people marching in this parade," he said. "And I'm glad they are."
Police Commissioner William Bratton marched last year with a contingent of uniformed officers. Gay activists held a news conference before the march to say officers should not participate in uniform.
Uniformed city workers, marching bands with bagpipes, traditional Irish dancers and politicians are traditional participants at the parade, which began in 1762 and can draw hundreds of thousands of participants and spectators.
The committee's statement welcoming OUT(at)NBCUniversal said, "Organizers have diligently worked to keep politics -- of any kind -- out of the parade in order to preserve it as a single and unified cultural event. Paradoxically, that ended up politicizing the parade."