Gay group to march in NYC St. Patrick's Day Parade for first time

Last Updated Sep 4, 2014 2:44 PM EDT

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. Mayor Bill de Blasio refused to march this year and Guinness beer as well as other beer companies dropped their sponsorships.

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 Fifth Avenue on March 17 under an identifying banner.

It's unclear how the group was chosen: whether OUTNBCUniversal, which is described on its website as "the affinity group for LGBT & Straight Ally employees at NBCUniversal," was invited by the organizers or applied, reports CBS New York. 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 earlier this 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."

President of the Catholic League, Bill Donohue, said in March that the parade was not discriminating against the LGBT community, but rather does not allow any groups or banners expressing political or social causes of any kind.

"This is not the place for some political cause. It's there to honor the patron saint of the Archdiocese of New York, St. Patrick. If you don't agree that that's what diversity means, then practice tolerance and go your own way," Donohue said.

Police Commissioner Bill Bratton marched this 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.

De Blasio was the first mayor in decades not to take part in the annual march on Fifth Avenue, reports CBS New York. The City Council also didn't have an official presence at the parade.

As well as Guinness, other beer companies went on to join the boycotts, with Sam Adams withdrawing its sponsorship of Boston's parade and Heineken following suit in New York.

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."