A group of drag performers is suing St. George and city leaders after they were denied a special events permit to host a drag show in April.
Southern Utah Drag Stars and its CEO Mitski Avalōx say the city’s actions constitute censorship and discrimination in a suit filed in federal court Tuesday, arguing it’s “part of a years-long effort to target drag performances and LGBTQ pride events in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as the Utah Constitution,” according to a news release from the ACLU of Utah.
A spokesperson for St. George said the city could not comment on active litigation. However in records and City Council meetings, city leaders claim the denial was because the group violated an ordinance that prohibits event advertising before a permit is granted.
Avalōx, meanwhile, said in her appeal that the city was showing “favoritism.”
Avalōx applied for the permit on March 3 to host the “Allies & Community Drag Show Festival” at the J.C. Snow Park, next to I-15 and Dixie middle and high schools. The ACLU describes it as a “family-friendly drag event.”
The permit was denied by St. George leaders, according to a letter sent by Special Events Coordinator Sarah Reber, who said Avalōx was violating city ordinance that bars advertising an event before the city issues a permit.
“It has come to the City’s attention that several applicants for special event(s) have publicly advertised the special event prior to a special event permit being granted,” the letter reads.
Avalōx appealed the decision during a City Council meeting on April 11. Two other events were dealt similar denials citing the same ordinance — Avalōx said the city was playing favorites, and pointed to other events that she said did not follow the city’s rule.
“You guys have chosen to obviously choose reoccurring city sponsored events and exclude them from that city ordinance — I mean, the other two events that got denied seem like collateral damage when I know that one of our council members is openly against what I do,” she said, presumably referring to Councilmember Michelle Tanner, who has been critical of drag performances.
Some councilmembers during deliberation did admit the ordinance was confusing — Councilwoman Dannielle Larkin, the only member to oppose the denial during the meeting, said there is an issue with how the ordinance defines “advertising.”
But ultimately, the appeal was denied, as were the permits for the other two events.
“Our ordinance is very clear, the most fair thing to do is to follow our ordinance and that’s what I would advocate for in this case,” said Tanner.
The ACLU called the ordinance an “obscure local rule” and according to the complaint filed Tuesday. It also criticized St. George’s recent moratorium on considering new special events, which means Avalōx will not be able to reapply for a new permit.
“The city later exempted ‘city sponsored’ events from the six month ban on new permit applications, creating a scheme whereby city officials selectively grant permits to favored events while denying all others,” the statement from the ACLU reads. “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.”
ACLU of Utah, along with the ACLU’s national branch and the law firm Jenner & Block, is representing the drag group, which is seeking a preliminary injunction to let them perform this June.