The long-running controversy over gay participation in the parade boiled over last week when the Dinkins administration ruled that the group that has sponsored it for almost 150 years, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, should lose its permit because of its refusal to allow homosexuals to march.
On Sunday, Cardinal John O'Connor took to the pulpit at St Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan to denounce the Mayor, accusing him of breaching the traditional frontier between church and state by attempting to turn the parade from a religious spectacle into a political one.
The dispute, which is splitting Irish- Americans and embroiling all the city's political establishment, is likely to be resolved only in the courts over the coming weeks. The Ancient Order of Hibernians is specifically charging City Hall with flouting its First Amendment right to free association.
The Order has long held that allowing gay groups to march in the parade would contravene Catholic teaching against the homosexual lifestyle.
Mr Dinkins, through his Irish-American Police Commissioner, Raymond Kelly, has awarded the permit to the St Patrick's Day Parade Committee, a group newly formed by liberal Irish-American allies of the Mayor. The group has confirmed it will allow any Irish-based organisation to take part and express their views with banners, including the Irish Gay and Lesbian Organisation.
The new policy would also allow groups sympathetic to the Irish Republican Army to participate. 'We will be encouraging people to be more active in terms of presenting viewpoints with regard to the partition of the north of Ireland,' Brian O'Dwyer, a member of the new committee, confirmed.
Addressing his weekly Mass, Cardinal O'Connor was blunt in his assault on Mr Dinkins. 'Do the Mayor and the Police Commissioner agree to his arbitrary transformation from the religious to the political? Will other religiously related activities become equally vulnerable to arbitrary politicisation in this land which boasts of its tradition of separation of church and state?'
The Cardinal's outburst prompted other city leaders to defend the Ancient Order of Hibernians. This week, the City Council speaker, Peter Vallone, cited a 1914 city ordinance that provides a permanent authorisation for city-centre marches with traditions stretching back beyond 1904. His contention that this also ensures an inviolable right to the Ancient Order to organise the march is disputed by the Mayor, however.
Gay rights activists, meanwhile, have turned their fire on Cardinal O'Connor, suggesting he is in breach of religious teaching by endorsing discrimination. 'It's remarkable that a religious leader should crusade for the right to discriminate against a class of people and then complain bitterly when it's not allowed,' Eileen Clancy of the Gay and Lesbian Organisation argued.
Mr Dinkins said he made the ruling in the hope that the arguments over gay inclusion which have marred the parade for several years, could be put to rest. But the risk now arises that the celebration may degenerate completely this year. The Cardinal has threatened to urge traditional participants, notably from schools in his archdiocese, to boycott the parade if the Ancient Order's permit is not reinstated.
In City Hall, meanwhile, officials are fearful that the fracas will result in two marches being held, one official with embarrassingly thin attendance, and the other non-official, sponsored by the Ancient Order and drawing the biggest crowds.