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So. Utah drag group sues St. George

The Southern Utah Drag Stars filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the city of St. George, Utah, which denied the organization a special events permit for a family-friendly drag show. According to the Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the city’s refusal to grant a permit is part of a years-long effort to target drag performances and LGBTQ pride events in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as the Utah Constitution. ACLU legal counsel intends to seek a preliminary injunction to allow Drag Stars to host its family-friendly drag show in June.

On March 3, Mitski Avalōx applied for a City of St. George special events permit to host a family-friendly drag event, Allies & Community Drag Show Festival, at J.C. Snow Park. 

A few weeks later, the city denied her application, alleging that she violated its advertising ordinance, an obscure local rule which prohibits advertising for special events until the city grants a permit. The advertising ordinance was not routinely enforced, says the ACLU in a statement, in part, because it is unworkable – permits are typically not issued until the day of or the day before events, making advertising an event practically impossible.

Drag Stars appealed the city’s permit denial, and, at the hearing, at least one city council member acknowledged that the advertising ban is not enforceable, the statement said, but the city council nonetheless denied Drag Stars’ appeal.

To make matters worse, while Avalōx’s application was pending, St. George decided to suspend considering any new special event permits for six months, denying Drag Stars the opportunity to submit a new permit application after the initial rejection. The city later exempted “city-sponsored” events from the six-month ban on new permit applications, creating a scheme whereby city officials selectively grant permits to favored events while denying all others. St. George’s special events policies discriminate against drag performances and are so opaque that no one can know what is allowed and what is not. 

“Requiring drag performers to meet unreasonable standards to receive a permit, or denying them these permits without legitimate justification, is censorship,” said Valentina De Fex, Senior Staff Attorney with the ACLU of Utah. “Our lawsuit challenges the attempt by elected officials, who must uphold the rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution and Utah State Constitution, to push subjective viewpoints of what they deem appropriate.” Regarding the impact of this case, De Fex stated, “With this filing, we continue our commitment to stop efforts to discriminate against and silence LGBTQ+ and gender-diverse individuals in Utah.”

“Drag is dance, fashion, and music — it is also deeply rooted in political speech — all protected by the First Amendment,” said Emerson Sykes, Senior Staff Attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “This is the latest offense in a larger pattern of attacks discriminating against gender-diverse and LGBTQ+ people and their rights in Utah and throughout the country.”

Just last year, lawmakers in six states proposed bills to ban drag. Under some of these bills, a business would be considered a “sexually oriented enterprise” – and therefore be subject to strict zoning requirements and fees – just for letting female comedians wear pants or male magicians grow their hair out. Drag performers and host venues across the country have had no choice but to move to higher security or cancel performances altogether.

Governmental attempts to restrict drag performances claim to protect children from so-called obscene material. However, drag is not obscene, and restricting access to a supportive community only causes more harm to trans and LGBTQ+ youth, who are already at a higher risk of depression and suicide.

“The city of St. George is violating the First Amendment rights of Drag Stars and discriminating against them through a façade of permits and ordinances that have never been applied in this manner with any other group or organization,” said Jeremy Creelan, Partner at Jenner & Block. “LGBTQ+ performers are entitled to protections under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and we are asking the court to protect these fundamental rights and put a stop to this deeply troubling attack on free expression.”

David Cordero, a spokesperson for St. George, said the city is aware of the legal action but refrained from comment.

The brief can be found online here

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