A conservative Utah city acted unconstitutionally by banning a family-friendly drag show from a public park and must allow it to proceed later this month, a federal judge has ruled.
The First Amendment guarantees the right of “all citizens, popular or not, majority or minority, conventional or unconventional” to express themselves freely in public spaces, U.S. District Judge David Nuffer said in the ruling released Friday.
He granted a preliminary injunction in favor of the drag show organizers and ordered city officials in St. George to give them permits to stage a rescheduled performance in the park on June 30.
“Those with whom [public officials] disagree with and those with whom they share little in common are also entitled to governmental rights and protection,” wrote Judge Nuffer, an Obama appointee.
In a statement, St. George officials expressed disappointment with the ruling.
“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,” the statement said. “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.”
In May, Southern Utah Drag Stars sued the city after officials denied permits for the all-ages show the group had planned to host on April 28.
City officials committed “flagrant and ongoing violations of their free speech, due process, and equal protection rights,” the complaint stated.
The lawsuit asked the court to make St. George reverse its decision and authorize a drag show at the end of this month.
In granting these requests, Judge Nuffer said in his ruling that St. George officials used “never-previously-enforced ordinances” as a “pretext for discrimination” against the drag group as a political minority.
St. George officials had argued the drag show organizers violated ordinances that forbid advertising for a public event before receiving a final permit.
The conservative city of about 100,000 residents borders Arizona and sits on the northeastern corner of the Mojave Desert. It is a historic settlement of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with about 65% of residents identifying as Mormon.
Last year, HBO filmed a drag show at a public park in St. George for an episode of the series “We’re Here.” That made the city a flashpoint in a growing conservative push to ban children from attending drag performances nationwide.
In Utah’s legislature, a St. George Republican’s proposal to require warning notices for drag shows and LGBT pride parades in public places stalled after passing through the state House in March. The proposal stemmed from local outcry against the HBO episode.
The American Civil Liberties Union represented Southern Utah Drag Stars in court.
“Quite simply, drag is protected by the First Amendment,” Valentina De Fex, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Utah, said Tuesday. “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.”