By Laila Kearney
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A conservative Roman Catholic group severed its 20-year ties with the New York City St. Patrick's Day Parade on Thursday, a week after event organizers took the unprecedented step of allowing a gay group to march under its own banner in the procession.
The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights said it pulled out of the March 2015 event because the parade committee denied an anti-abortion group from marching with banners while bending its rules to allow the gay group to do so, League President Bill Donohue said in a statement.
"For the past two decades I have been the parade’s most vocal defender of its rules," Donohue said. "Repeatedly, I have said that gays have no more been banned from marching than pro-life Catholics have."
Organizers for the parade, which began in 1762, were not immediately available on Thursday to respond to Donohue's comments.
The organizers have said the parade, the largest in the nation, is open to all marchers. But gay and anti-abortion groups had been prohibited from displaying their own banners, pins or other signs with their affiliations.
City officials and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, welcomed the policy change, announced last week, as a change of tone after years of conflict over the issue.
The decision came on the heels of lawsuits and boycotts over the ban. Two big sponsors, beermakers Guinness and Heineken, recently yanked their sponsorship.
Donohue said the Catholic League is not withdrawing because of any opposition to the gay group's participation. He said the league felt betrayed by the parade committee.
Donohue said he was approached by committee members shortly before they announced their decision to change the rules and allow gays groups to march. At the time, he said, he asked committee members to pledge that pro-life groups would get the same privilege, and they agreed, he said.
"This explains why the Catholic League is finished with the New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade," said Donohue.
(Reporting by Laila Kearney; Editing by Dan Grebler)