By Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A federal judge has ruled that Tennessee’s law restricting drag performances in public or in the presence of children is unconstitutional, dealing a blow to U.S. states’ efforts to regulate LGBTQ conduct.
Tennessee Governor Bill Lee had signed the bill passed by the state assembly in February that sought to restrict drag performance, putting the state at the forefront of an effort led by Republicans to limit drag in at least 15 states over the past few months.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Parker, appointed by former Republican President Donald Trump, ruled late Friday that the law was “both unconstitutionally vague and substantially overbroad.” The First Amendment to the Constitution says laws infringing on free speech must be narrow and narrow, Parker said in the 70-page ruling.
“Simply put, no Supreme Court majority has ruled that sexually explicit — but not obscene — speech receives less protection than political, artistic or scientific speech,” Parker said in the ruling.
Under the law, violators could face fines and up to a year in prison and repeat offenders could face prison terms of up to six years.
Ahead of the 2024 election, Republican lawmakers across the country introduced more than 500 bills this year regulating the conduct of gay and transgender people, ranging from what can be taught in schools to using bathrooms and medical care. At least 48 of them passed, according to Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group.
Parker had temporarily blocked the law on March 31, just before it took effect, siding with Friends of George’s, a Memphis-based LGBTQ theater group that filed a lawsuit against the state.
GLAAD, an LGBTQ advocacy group, praised Parker’s decision. “This decision is a watershed moment and we will not look back,” GLAAD said in a statement.
“Every anti-LGBTQ elected official is warned that these baseless laws will not stand and that our constitutional freedom of speech and expression protects everyone and propels our culture forward,” the group said.
(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Additional reporting by Eric Beech and Jonathan Allen; Editing by Daniel Wallis)