Supreme Court to decide whether St. Patrick's Day parade can ban gays

January 07, 1995|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court put itself in position yesterday to become something of a constitutional grand marshal for America's parades, deciding who has a right to join in the line of march when everyone is not welcome.

In a brief order, the court said it would settle a constitutional dispute in Boston over the desire of organizers of a St. Patrick's Day parade to keep out gays and lesbians. The same dispute has arisen over New York City's parade to mark that day.

At issue are competing First Amendment claims: the organizers' right to decide what message their parade will send out and the unwanted marchers' right to use the city streets to express themselves.

Massachusetts' highest court ruled in July that the traditional St. Patrick's Day parade in South Boston, organized by private groups, has long been a "civil celebration," not a platform for the ideas and views only of its organizers. Thus, the parade has become a "public accommodation," and homosexuals cannot be barred from it because their views are different, the state court said.

Six years ago, a similar dispute arose in Maryland, when Thurmont officials told the Ku Klux Klan it could not have a parade if it barred blacks and let only white Christians take part. A federal judge in Baltimore ruled, however, that Thurmont violated the Klan's free speech rights by seeking to dilute its message of white separatism.

The Supreme Court took on the Boston version of that kind of emotional dispute as one of 12 new cases it agreed to hear -- an HTC unusually large number during a term marked by a light workload. It announced its actions yesterday -- instead of Monday -- to speed up the handling of new cases.

Final decisions in all of the new cases are expected before the court finishes its current term in early summer.

The justices also chose to move more deeply into the constitutional wrangle over creating oddly-shaped congressional districts specifically designed to elect black candidates.

A month after agreeing to decide a similar redistricting case from Louisiana, it added another one from Georgia.

The new case involves the meandering district of Democratic Rep. Cynthia A. McKinney, created expressly to give black voters a majority and to help assure that three black representatives get elected to Congress from Georgia.

Representative McKinney's district -- nullified in September by a federal court in Savannah -- picks up predominantly black

populations in the suburbs of Atlanta, then moves southward into the suburbs of Macon and all the way across the state eastward to parts of Augusta, then southward to Savannah.

Such districts have been under fire in federal courts since the Supreme Court cast constitutional doubts over them in 1993. The new round of cases is expected to clarify the court's willingness to tolerate the use of race in redistricting when that has been a key factor.

The Georgia case raises the same issues as the Louisiana case, but adds new questions about the Justice Department's authority to demand that Southern states create more minority-dominated districts than their legislatures prefer to have.

In another significant case added to the docket yesterday, the court will decide whether a 1973 federal law designed to protect endangered wildlife makes it a crime for private individuals or companies to disturb animal habitat.

The case involves challenges by Pacific Northwest timber interests to Interior Department rules that would assure greater protection for the northern spotted owl and the red-cockaded woodpecker. The timber group won its case in a lower court in March.

The Clinton administration took that issue to the Supreme Court after the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., ruled that the Endangered Species Act does not criminalize private

disturbance of wildlife habitat. The law only makes it a crime for private individuals or groups to use direct force to harm wildlife, the lower court said.

Among the other new disputes the court will hear is a Texas man's claim that his rights were violated when he faced double punishment over his cocaine dealings. His involvement with cocaine was first used by a federal judge as a reason to give him a stiffer sentence for a marijuana conviction, and then the government prosecuted him separately, in a new case, for those same cocaine dealings.

Lower courts rejected his claim that this was "double jeopardy" under the Fifth Amendment, but the justices will review that.

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