A spokesman for the New York City St. Patrick's Day Parade said the inclusion of an LGBT activist group in the traditionally Catholic parade was a "gesture of goodwill," though concerns have been raised that some outside groups aim to remove the event's Catholic character.

Bill Donohue of the Catholic League, a longtime supporter of the parade's previous policy against political signs and advocacy, said that organizers initially formally assured him that both homosexual groups and pro-life groups prohibited under the old policy could now apply to march under their own banner.

"That being the case, there should be no controversy. One would hope that all the new entries will conduct themselves in a manner that honors St. Patrick, lest another round of controversy emerges," he said Sept. 3.

But on Sept. 4, Donohue told CNA that he had "some concerns" about how the policy change was announced and appeared to be changing.

"I'm watching this carefully. I know what the goal is of the activists. They want to neuter the religious element," he said.

He said that parade officials' initial announcement focused on the inclusion of one LGBT group, Out@NBCUniversal, an employee resource, recruitment and affinity volunteer group for LGBT people and their supporters within the media corporation NBCUniversal. Donohue voiced concerns that the committee announcement did not mention that a Catholic pro-life group would also be allowed to march in the parade.

Donohue also said he had initially been told that only one LGBT group would be marching.

"By the evening, we were told that other gay groups could still apply for 2015. That's a change," he said. "Now the pro-abortion groups and the radical gay groups want in as well. They have been told that they can apply."

Bill O'Reilly, a parade spokesman, told CNA that the parade "has always welcomed people of all backgrounds and persuasions" and had adopted the policy against political banners "in order to keep politics out of the parade."

"Paradoxically, as we mentioned, that ended up politicizing the parade, with the gay and lesbian community."

Yesterday's announcement allowing a gay and lesbian group was "a gesture of goodwill by the parade community," O'Reilly said.

He added that the failure to mention a potential pro-life group marching was an error on his part. He said he had initially not been aware of the conversation between Donohue and parade leaders.

"A pro-life group will be looked at very much favorably by the committee if they wish to march under a banner. We look forward to seeing their application when it comes in," he said.

In addition, he said, statements that more LGBT groups would be accepted for the 2015 parade were incorrect. Although the Wall Street Journal reported that the Out@UniversalNBC group could invite other groups to attend, O'Reilly said that the group could only invite others to participate as individuals, as parade rules bar multiple banners in a single contingent.

The Out@NBCUniversal Twitter feed promotes LGBT causes. It retweeted an Aug. 29 story from the MSNBC news show The Cycle on LGBT activist Matthew Vines. The tweet read, "Meet the inspirational young man who makes the biblical case for same-sex relationships."

The well-known parade dates back to 1762. The parade's website says it is the oldest and largest parade in the world, with participants ranging in number from 150,000 to 250,000. The Archbishop of New York traditionally reviews the parade from the steps of St. Patrick's Cathedral.

The Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish Catholic fraternal group, officially sponsored the parade for decades. In 1992, the New York City parade sponsorship was transferred to St. Patrick's Day Parade, Inc., a separate corporation, following directions from the Hibernians' national body.

The late 1980s and early 1990s were a time of contentious LGBT activism and strong resistance to it.

In December 1989, the group ACT UP led a notorious "Stop the Church" protest at New York City's St. Patrick's Cathedral which resulted in several dozen activists disrupting the church during Mass. Most activists laid down in the church aisles, while others threw condoms, chained themselves to pews or loudly harangued the Mass' celebrant, Cardinal John O'Connor. One activist desecrated the Blessed Sacrament. Over 100 were arrested in the incident.

Parade organizers' refusal to approve applications from LGBT advocacy groups made the parade the target of lawsuits, critical media coverage and corporate boycotts.

The St. Patrick's Day Parade website said that in the early 1990s the parade was "attacked for its traditional values" but noted that organizers' rights were "upheld all the way to the Supreme Court."

Cardinal O'Connor, who headed the New York archdiocese from 1984 to 2000, had supported the parade committee's previous policy of prohibiting political messages.

According to a March 1993 New York Times article, Cardinal O'Connor voiced his love for homosexuals and promised his prayers for them, while adding that he "could never even be perceived as compromising Catholic teaching" on marriage and sexuality by allowing the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization to march in the parade as an identifiable group.

New York's present archbishop, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, will be grand marshal of the 2015 parade. He said Sept. 3 that the parade committee "continues to have my confidence and support."

"Neither my predecessors as Archbishop of New York nor I have ever determined who would or would not march in this parade (or any of the other parades that march along Fifth Avenue, for that matter), but have always appreciated the cooperation of parade organizers in keeping the parade close to its Catholic heritage," he said.

The cardinal said he and his predecessors have "always left decisions on who would march to the organizers of the individual parades."

O'Reilly told CNA said the parade policy was changed due to Catholic teaching "about showing compassion and understanding to groups that don't agree with all the Church's teachings."

"I think in part the tone is changing within the Church and I think Pope Francis has spoken about this, and Cardinal Dolan did last night," O'Reilly said. "There is a sense among many Catholic leaders (for) showing that compassion and that brotherly love regardless of whether or not one agrees with Church teachings. It may be the best foot forward for the Church at this point. We hope people will see it in that light."

At the same time, he said that parade committee statements about anyone being able to apply to participate in the parade were spoken "neutrally" and applications would still need to be approved by committee.

"Anyone is free to apply, any group can be free to apply, but for an abortion group to apply to march in a Catholic parade would be a great anomaly to say the least."

O'Reilly said the committee's reaction to the application "can probably be imagined."

Donohue contended other forces were at work in the debate over the parade policy. He suggested that while the cardinal and those running the parade are "good men," they are "not the ones always making the decisions."

Donohue blamed "corporate pressure" from NBC and others, including Wall Street and Guinness. The last, an Ireland-based brewer, pulled its sponsorship from the parade.

Donohue, the Irish Central news website and the New York Times all reported that NBC had threatened to end its broadcasts of the parade. The New York Times noted that the broadcast contract ends in 2015.

However, O'Reilly said there had been no threat to end the broadcast and rejected any suggestion that the decision was due to outside pressure.

Cardinal Dolan said Sept. 3 that he looked forward to celebrating Mass in honor of St. Patrick.

He said he prayed "that the parade would continue to be a source of unity for all of us."