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NYC firefighters angered by beret ban won't march in parade

March 17, 2005

NEW YORK (AP) - If they can't march in green, hundreds of firefighters won't march at all.

In response to a fire department order prohibiting its members from wearing their customary green berets during the St. Patrick's Day Parade, a group of firefighters will watch from the sidelines today - clad in their traditional holiday headgear and civilian clothes, several firefighters said Wednesday.

The group will gather along the parade route at the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art to "support our brothers and sisters as they march," said Lt. Eddie Boles of the 14th Battalion in the Bronx. But they will not march without the berets.

"It was a matter of pride," Firefighter Jim McCarthy told reporters. "It's a demonstration of Irish heritage and it's one of the things we hold dear."

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The fire department issued an order on March 4 declaring that only the blue dress uniform, including the official uniform cap, could be worn during the parade.

Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta defended the rule Wednesday. "It's about respecting the uniform and the position you hold, both of which should not be taken for granted," he said.

An attorney for some of the firefighters, Brian O'Dwyer, said he planned to file a complaint with the state Division on Human Rights accusing the department of discrimination on the basis of religion and ethnicity.

He acknowledged the move came too late to affect this year's parade.

The tradition of the green berets dates back more than 30 years to a Bronx firehouse. In 1970, the mother-in-law of a firefighter with Engine Co. 60 knitted dozens of green berets for the firefighters on St. Patrick's Day.

In 1975, the department gave the group official parade status. They've worn their berets in every parade since.

Although there is no official organization, they count about 1,000 members, including current, former, and retired members of the battalion, Boles said. Non-Irish firefighters wear green berets as well out of loyalty to the firehouse, McCarthy said.

The parade has been a New York tradition since 1762, and controversy has surrounded it for nearly as long.

The Ancient Order of Hibernians, which organizes the event, has refused to allow lesbians and gays to march in the parade under their own banner. An alternative, all-inclusive parade in Queens was launched six years ago to include groups like the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization.

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