ST. GEORGE, Utah (ABC4) — The owner of Southern Utah Drag Stars and the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah have filed a lawsuit against the City of St. George and several councilmembers for alleged discrimination against drag performances and LGBTQ+ events, which they believe violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
“Drag is dance, fashion, and music — it is also deeply rooted in political speech — all protected by the First Amendment,” said Emerson Sykes, Senior Staff Attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “This is the latest offense in a larger pattern of attacks discriminating against gender-diverse and LGBTQ+ people and their rights in Utah and throughout the country.”
According to the ACLU, Mitski Avalōx, the CEO of Southern Utah Drag Stars, applied for a special events permit on March 3 to host a family-friendly drag event called the Allies & Community Drag Show Festival at J.C. Snow Park. The city reportedly denied her application a few weeks later, citing that Avalōx has violated an advertising ordinance.
The ACLU describes the ordinance as “an obscure local rule,” and claims that after Drag Stars appealed the permit denial, several council members admitted that the ordinance is not enforceable. However, St. George ultimately denied the appeal.
Additionally, while Avalōx’s application is pending, St. George reportedly decided to stop considering new special event permits for six months unless they are “city-sponsored.”
“[They are] creating a scheme whereby city officials selectively grant permits to favored events while denying all others. St. George’s special events policies discriminate against drag performances and are so opaque that no one can know what is allowed and what is not,” said representatives of the ACLU.
The plaintiffs are seeking a preliminary injunction to allow Drag Stars to host its family-friendly show in June.
The lawsuit also included several instances whereby the city allegedly discriminated against drag performances over the last 10 months, particularly one that happened in June 2022.
The HBO program, We’re Here, is a reality TV show featuring three drag queens as they travel to small towns across the country to connect with residents through the art of drag. The show reportedly obtained a permit to hold and film a drag show in one of the City’s public parks in June 2022.
The lawsuit claims that several St. George councilmembers sought to cancel the show’s permit and asked the city attorney to investigate whether the council could do “anything to stop the show.” However, they were reportedly told that HBO had followed all procedures.
Councilmember Michelle Tanner, the lawsuit alleges, led the effort to cancel the show’s permit. She wrote and published an open letter to City Manager Adam Lenhard on June 3, 2022, claiming that City Management “side-stepped procedural requirements” and did not ask for the City Council’s approval when issuing the permit for We’re Here.
In the letter, Tanner also said that the show’s location, which was near the Children’s Museum, the children’s splash pad area and the carousel, is “not suited” for We’re Here because it is rated “TV-MA,” which Tanner claimed allows obscene language and adult content.
On May 27, 2022, the City Council allegedly held a closed-door meeting where they voted to order Lenhard to deny HBO’s permit. According to the lawsuit, Lenhard told the City Council the next day that he would not follow the order because the show had “broadly complied with the legal requirements for an event permit, and if the City attempted to cancel the permit, it could expose itself to litigation.”
As a result, We’re Here was filmed in St. George on June 3, 2022. A little over a month later, the City Council allegedly informed Lenhard that he would be fired for refusing to deny or revoke the drag show permit, the lawsuit stated. Lenhard resigned publicly on or about Oct. 3, 2022.
“The city of St. George is violating the First Amendment rights of Drag Stars and discriminating against them through a façade of permits and ordinances that have never been applied in this manner with any other group or organization,” said Jeremy Creelan, Partner at Jenner & Block. “LGBTQ+ performers are entitled to protections under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and we are asking the court to protect these fundamental rights and put a stop to this deeply troubling attack on free expression.”
ABC4 has reached out to the City of St. George for comment.
Read the full lawsuit here: