ACLU sues a Tennessee city over an anti-drag ordinance

Oct 6, 2023, 3:24 PM

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee on Friday filed a federal lawsuit against a Tennessee city that passed an ordinance designed to ban drag performances from taking place on public property.

The legal challenge is the latest development in the ongoing political battle over LGBTQ+ rights inside Tennessee, where the state’s conservative leaders have sought to limit events where drag performers may appear, restrict classroom conversations about gender and sexuality, and ban gender-affirming care.

Friday’s latest lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Tennessee Equality Project, a nonprofit that advocates for LGBTQ+ rights and has previously hosted a Pride event in Murfreesboro — located about 34 miles (55 kilometers) south of Nashville — since 2016.

However, according to the 67-page complaint, the organization has faced recent opposition from Murfreesboro leaders after conservative activists alleged that drag performances that took place during the 2022 Pride event resulted in the “illegal sexualization of kids.”

TEP denied the shows were inappropriate, noting that the performers were fully clothed. However, the city quickly warned the organization it would be denying any future event permits and later approved updating its “community decency standards” intended to “assist in the determination of conduct, materials, and events that may be judged as obscene or harmful to minors.”

The suit alleges the ordinance violates the First Amendment for chilling free speech rights, as well as argues that it breaks the 14th Amendment for discriminating against the LGBTQ+ community.

A spokesperson for the city of Murfreesboro did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

In late August, the ACLU filed a similar lawsuit after the Blount County district attorney warned Pride festival organizers in eastern Tennessee that he planned to enforce a newly enacted state law intended to severely limit drag shows. Two days later, a federal judge ruled that law enforcement officials couldn’t do so.

Meanwhile, a separate federal judge across the state in Memphis ruled this summer that Tennessee’s anti-drag show law was “unconstitutionally vague and substantially overbroad,” and encouraged “discriminatory enforcement.” The judge in March had previously temporarily blocked the law from taking effect.

Tennessee’s GOP-dominant Legislature and Republican Gov. Bill Lee enacted the anti-drag show law in March. Many supporters said drag performances in their hometowns made it necessary to restrict them from taking place in public or where children could view them.

Along with statewide bans on drag performances, some cities and counties in the U.S. have moved to implement their own local limitations. A handful of local governments have already done so in West Virginia, while voters in the small town of Bellefontaine, Ohio, will be asked whether to ban drag shows in public on the Nov. 7 ballot.

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ACLU sues a Tennessee city over an anti-drag ordinance