NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – A federal judge on Friday temporarily blocked Tennessee’s first-in-the-state law imposing strict emissions limits just hours before it was set to go into effect, siding with a group that filed a lawsuit claiming the statute violates the First Amendment.
The decision comes after Memphis-based Friends of George’s, an LGBTQ+ theater company, filed a federal lawsuit Monday against Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy and the state.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Parker issued the temporary injunction after hearing arguments from both sides on Thursday.
Parker wrote that the state failed to make a compelling case for why Tennessee needed the new law, adding that the court also agreed that the statute was likely vague and overbroad.
The word “drag” does not appear in the new law, which instead changed the definition of cabaret for adults in Tennessee to mean “performances directed at adults that are harmful to minors.” Furthermore, “male or female impersonators” are now classified as a form of adult cabaret, akin to strippers and topless, go-go and exotic dancers.
The law prohibited the performance of adult cabarets on public property or anywhere minors might be present. Contractors who break the law risk being charged with a misdemeanor or a felony for a repeat offense.
“The law prohibits a drag performer wearing a T-shirt and miniskirt from dancing where minors might see it, but does not prohibit a Tennessee Titans cheerleader wearing identical clothing from performing the exact same dance in front of children,” the initial complaint states. .
Parker also raised concerns in line with the group’s argument that the law is too broad, questioning the cabaret’s location specifications for entertainment that a minor might see.
“Does a citizen’s private residence count? How about camping in a national park?” – wrote Parker. “Ultimately, the broad language of the Statute flies in the face of the strict limitations of the First Amendment.”
The complaint also cites efforts last year to block a drag show at a park in Jackson, west of Nashville, as part of the Pride festival. A lawsuit led by Republican state Rep. Chris Todd and Republican state Sen. Ed Jackson tried to block the show, forcing organizers to reach a settlement to hold the event indoors with an age restriction.
“After abusing state courts to infringe on Jackson Pride’s First Amendment rights, Rep. Todd ‘was asked to come up with legislation that would make this much clearer’ — that performances in front of children are a violation of Tennessee law,” the complaint states.
Parker addressed Todd’s actions in his decision Friday, saying the attorney general’s office did not provide a clear answer about the purpose of the new law given Tennessee’s current obscenity laws.
During Thursday’s hearing, Mulroy told the judge he did not oppose the temporary restraining order.
“There has been a lot of concern and confusion about the law from the community,” Mulroy said in a statement to The Associated Press. “This will allow the court to clarify the scope, application and constitutionality of the statute. It is important to understand the scope of this law so that it does not have a detrimental effect on constitutionally protected expression.”
A spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.
The Tennessee Withdrawal Act is the second major LGBTQ+ target bill passed this year. Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed GOP-backed legislation that bans most gender-affirming care.
Lee has faced criticism for endorsing legislation against drag shows, especially since a 1977 photo surfaced of him as a high school senior dressed in women’s clothing.
Lee called the comparison of the two problems “ridiculous.” When asked about specific examples of inappropriate drag shows being held in front of children, Lee did not cite any, but said he was concerned about protecting children.