Governor hands drag show court case to attorney general
Lee says he won’t talk to AG Skrmetti about court decision but says he wants to know how it would be enforced
Gov. Bill Lee photographed on June 5, 2023, in Nashville as he touted his roads plan. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Gov. Bill Lee could be washing his hands of a law setting restrictions on drag shows even though he signed the measure just minutes after it passed the House earlier this year.
Lee said Monday he won’t consult with the state attorney general about a judge’s decision to overturn Tennessee law prohibiting drag performances in public spaces or in front of minors. Yet he also said he wants to know how it could be enforced.
“That now falls into the realm of the judicial branch and the attorney general will determine next steps from there,” the governor said after holding a ceremonial bill signing in Nashville for his transportation modernization plan.
Skrmetti reportedly said he plans to appeal the ruling of U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Parker, who found the adult entertainment law violates the separation of powers and endangers First Amendment speech protections. Parker, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump, also said the law is overly broad and vague.
That bill was created to protect children in this state. I’ll continue to do that whenever we can. But the attorney general will make the decision about that particular piece of legislation.
– Gov. Bill Lee
Lee said he hasn’t spoken to Skrmetti about the judge’s decision or the likelihood of an appeal and said he has no plans to discuss it with him.
Asked, however, if he expects district attorneys general across the state to enforce the law, Lee said he would want to find out the attorney general’s comment on where the law stands and how an “enforcement mechanism” would be handled.
The judge’s decision appears to affect only the jurisdiction of District Attorney General Steve Mulroy in Shelby County, potentially leaving it up to DAs in other areas to enforce it and risk running afoul of another court battle.
Republican Rep. Chris Todd of Madison County sponsored the House version of the bill, in part to restrict a large Pride show held in Jackson each year.
“That bill was created to protect children in this state. I’ll continue to do that whenever we can. But the attorney general will make the decision about that particular piece of legislation,” Lee said.
Friends of George’s, a Memphis theater company that supports LGBTQ groups financially with performances that include drag, filed suit in March to stop the law from taking effect. The judge initially delayed the law while hearing arguments.
Parker wrote in his ruling filed late last week that while the state has an interest in protecting minors, the law doesn’t do that, instead suppressing “unpopular views of those who wish to impersonate a gender that is different from the one with which they were born.”
The judge found the law applies to almost any public space and pointed out the state’s attorneys changed the meaning of the act from restricting entertainment found to be “harmful to minors” to entertainment damaging to a “reasonable 17-year-old.”
The bill’s sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, said he was disappointed with the judge’s decision and claimed it “ignored 60 years of Supreme Court precedent allowing regulation of obscene entertainment in the presence of minors.”
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