St. George forced to allow drag show by federal judge

Efforts of some city councilmembers in St. George to prevent a drag event from taking place in a municipal park were declared unconstitutional on Friday by a federal judge, who ordered the city to allow the event to proceed.

In April, the St. George City Council voted to deny a permit for the Allies & Community Drag Show Festival, organized by Southern Utah Drag Stars, at J.C. Snow Park. They claimed that the organizers violated a municipal ordinance that prohibited advertising special events until final approval and a permit were obtained from the city.

In response, the Southern Utah Drag Stars, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, filed a lawsuit against the city on May 23, accusing the officials of violating the First and Fourteenth Amendments. They argued that the city had been targeting drag performances and LGBTQ pride events for years.

U.S. District Judge David Nuffer sided with the plaintiffs, ruling that the city’s actions were an overreach and a violation of the constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression. Nuffer emphasized that public spaces should be accessible to all citizens, regardless of their popularity, majority or minority status, or conformity to conventions. He granted the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction.

As a result, the judge’s ruling orders municipal leaders to reverse their denial of Southern Utah Drag Stars’ previous application and mandates that they allow the drag show to take place on June 30, either at the same location or at the Sun Bowl. The ruling does not conclude the lawsuit, as it still will be litigated in court.

Nuffer, a Brigham Young University graduate appointed by President Barack Obama, criticized the city officials for neglecting their responsibility to protect the constitutional rights of all citizens and emphasized that elected officials should not serve only the majority or a vocal minority but must uphold the rights of all individuals. He condemned the use of pretended or pretextual reasons to deny constitutional rights as a breach of trust and honesty.

“The governing body and its members must never use pretended or pretextual reasons to hide the real reasons for denying individuals their constitutional rights,” the judge wrote. “This is not only a fundamental breach of their oath and trust but also less than honest.”

“Public spaces are public spaces,” Nuffer wrote. “Public spaces are not private spaces. Public spaces are not majority spaces. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution ensures that all citizens, popular or not, majority or minority, conventional or unconventional, have access to public spaces for public expression.”

“Challenging times give us an opportunity to re-examine fundamental principles of our government and, once again, determine to adhere by them. We recognize that just as we enjoy and prize our rights, we must value and respect the rights of others. This case presents an opportunity for our recommitment,” Nuffer also wrote.

ACLU Utah released a statement after the ruling.

“Quite simply, drag is protected by the First Amendment. The City of St. George’s selective and discriminatory refusal to permit a family-friendly drag event impermissibly silenced LGBTQ+ Utahns and violated our client’s constitutional rights,” wrote Valentina De Fex, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Utah. “This ruling is a win for not just our client- who will now be able to hold an event on June 30 that celebrates inclusivity and joy- but for all people in St. George and throughout Utah. We are grateful for the court’s decisive action to disallow attempts by city officials to implement subjective viewpoints of what they deem appropriate to silence and erase LGBTQIA+ and gender diverse communities throughout the state.”

The decision by Judge Nuffer was praised by Valentina De Fex, a senior staff attorney from the ACLU, who expressed gratitude for the ruling and highlighted that drag performances are protected by the First Amendment. De Fex stated that the city’s refusal to permit a family-friendly drag event silenced LGBTQ+ individuals and violated the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs.

City officials declined to comment on the ruling, citing the city’s policy of refraining from discussing matters under litigation. They released a prepared statement affirming their commitment to keeping public parks and facilities open for residents and event organizers.

“The City of St. George is committed to ensuring that our public parks and facilities remain viable and open to our residents as well as for those who may want to hold one of the many special events in our community. Our intent is always to follow the law both when we enact laws and when we enforce laws, and we will continue to do so. We have read Judge Nuffer’s opinion, and while we are disappointed in the result, we are currently evaluating our options in light of the ruling,” the city said

The controversy surrounding drag shows in St. George has been ongoing, with municipal staff and city council members becoming embroiled in disputes over the past year. Councilwoman Michelle Tanner has been particularly vocal in opposing drag performances, citing concerns about their influence on children.

The ruling shed light on the city’s previous attempts to curtail drag events. For example, Tanner criticized City Manager Adam Lenhard, who chose not to deny a permit for a drag show organized by HBO at Town Square Park in June of the previous year. Lenhard eventually resigned and accepted a settlement to avoid suing the city for wrongful termination.

Tanner also led an unsuccessful effort to revoke the city’s sponsorship of the Downtown Farmers Market due to the participation of Southern Utah Drag Stars, who operated a photo booth at a private business on downtown Main Street.

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