Federal judge sides with Southern Utah Drag Stars in dispute with St. George officials

St George • City officials’ attempt to prevent a drag event from being held in a city park in St. George fell through on Friday after a federal judge ruled their actions unconstitutional and ordered them to continue with the show.

In April, St. George officials denied the Southern Utah Drag Stars permission to host the Allies & Community Drag Show Festival at JC Snow Park, saying the organizers violated a municipal ordinance prohibiting contestants from advertising special events until they have received final approval and approval from the city.

This prompted the Southern Utah Drag Stars and the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah to sue the city on May 23, accusing city officials of violating the First and Fourteenth Amendments as part of “years of effort to stop drag performances and targeting LGBTQ pride events.” .”

U.S. District Judge David Nuffer sided with the plaintiffs — the ACLU and Mitski Avalōx, CEO of Southern Utah Drag Stars — calling the city’s actions an excess and a violation of the Avalōx’s constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression .

“Public spaces are public spaces. Public spaces are not private spaces. Public spaces are not majority spaces. “The First Amendment to the United States Constitution ensures that all citizens, whether popular or not, majority or minority, conventional or unconventional, have access to public spaces for the expression of public opinion,” Nuffer wrote in responding to plaintiff’s motion an injunction was granted.

Nuffer’s ruling orders community leaders to reverse their denial of the Southern Utah Drag Stars’ earlier application and requires them to allow the company to hold a show on June 30 at the same venue or the Sun Bowl. However, this does not end the legal dispute, which still has to be heard in court.

In granting the injunction, the judge reprimanded city officials for waiving their duty to be custodians of the constitutional rights of all citizens, further stating that it is not the rule of elected officials “to merely serve the citizens, who they elect, the majority of citizens in the community or a vocal minority in the community.”

“The governing body and its members must never use sham or feigned grounds to hide the real reasons for denying individuals their constitutional rights,” the judge wrote. “Not only is this a fundamental breach of their oath and trust, it is also dishonest.”

Nuffer’s decision was praised by ACLU lead attorney Valentina De Fex, who was grateful for the judge’s decision and noted that drag was protected under the First Amendment.

“The city of St. George’s selective and discriminatory refusal to allow a family-friendly drag event unfairly silenced LGBTQ+ Utahns and violated our client’s constitutional rights,” she said. “This decision is not only a win for our client – who can now host an event celebrating inclusivity and joy on June 30 – but for all the people of St. George and throughout Utah.”

City officials declined to comment on the ruling, citing St. George’s policy requiring them to maintain secrecy about matters that are the subject of litigation. Instead, they released a prepared statement.

“The City of St. George is committed to keeping our public parks and facilities viable and open to our residents, as well as those who may wish to hold one of the many special events in our community,” the statement said.

“We have read Judge Nuffer’s opinion and while we are disappointed with the outcome, we are currently evaluating our options in light of the ruling,” they added.

A long fight against the resistance

Drag shows in St. George’s have sparked controversy between city workers and city council members over the past year. Councilwoman Michelle Tanner has been particularly vocal against drag performances, which she says have a corrupting influence on children.

Tanner, for example, has been vocal in his criticism of City Manager Adam Lenhard, who, on the advice of attorneys, refused to deny permission to a drag show HBO hosted in Town Square Park last June. Lenhard later resigned under pressure and accepted a $625,000 settlement rather than suing the city for wrongful termination.

Tanner also led an unsuccessful attempt to have the city remove sponsorship of the Downtown Farmers Market at Vernon Worthen Park, after the owners decided to allow Southern Utah drag stars to operate a photo booth at Modern Farm and Artisan Co-op, their private and separate location shop on Main Street downtown.

In rejecting Avalōx’s bid for a drag show, Nuffer said that city council members invoked the Ad Ban Ordinance, which has been in effect since 2015 but was not enacted until March 23, almost three weeks after Avalōx submitted his application.

In March, the city council also issued a six-month moratorium on allowing other special events in city parks and public squares until the city council could make some changes to the rules governing such gatherings. Allegedly, part of the aim was to prevent city parks from being overused and to find a way to treat every applicant who wants to host such events equally.

However, Nuffer explained that city officials’ decision in April to amend the ordinance and retrospectively exempt recurring and city-sponsored events from the moratorium and now enforce an early advertising rule undermined their rationale for the moratorium and disapproval of the Southern Utah Drag Stars . allow.

Overall, when reviewing pending applications for special events in March, the city found that 16 applicants had violated the ordinance banning advertising without a permit. But instead of denying all of their requests and enforcing the moratorium equally, the city amended the ordinance to retrospectively exempt most violators from the exemption and enforce the ordinances on a select few, including the Southern Utah Drag Stars.

Nuffer called the city’s selective enforcement of the advertising and moratorium ordinances unconstitutional discrimination

“Last-minute changes in policy that deviate from previous practice may also support a finding of subterfuge: if the reasons given for excluding protected expression are “of such recent vintage”. . . “And such a break with previous traditions” can be a pretext for discrimination based on content or viewpoint,” Nuffer said in the ruling, later adding that the facts in this case “taken together demonstrate basic pretended discrimination”.

He wrote that the fact sheet in the case was full of statements and conduct by city council members that showed “grave hostility to the speech and perspective protected by drag stars.” And he blamed Tanner for the city’s refusal to grant Avalōx approval, which was quick to dismiss the Southern Utah Drag Stars Show after receiving a text message from a woman named Lisa on March 17.

“I am so disgusted with this Southern Utah drag group,” the woman wrote. “They all sexually abuse children and should be held accountable. I thought you might have an update.”

According to Nuffer, Tanner immediately looked for reasons for denying permission for the Allies Drag Show, found the advertising ban in the city ordinance, and informed the St. George’s legal department, which began investigating the matter.

“The record shows that the application of this ban was a pretext for discrimination,” the judge wrote.

By ordering the city to allow Southern Utah Drag Stars to perform a drag show in a city park on June 30, the judge barred the city from enforcing its advertising ban or using the moratorium to deny Avalōx’s request. He also ruled that the plaintiff was not required to file a new application for the show, since the application he had already filed for the April show would suffice.

For her part, LGBTQ advocate Katheryne Knight was delighted with the judge’s decision.

“As a community, we have a duty to stand up and speak out — not only when we see evidence of discrimination or violations of our rights, but also when we witness financial neglect,” said the St. George resident. “These lawsuits are costing taxpayers a lot of money. Ultimately, this decision benefits the entire community.

Justin Scaccy

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