The downtown area of Murfreesboro, Tennessee – Photo: Pollinator, via Wikimedia
A city that adopted an anti-drag ordinance that technically criminalized gay existence will pay $500,000 as part of a settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued the city on behalf of a pro-LGBTQ organization.
The Murfreesboro, Tennessee city council initially approved the “decency ordinance,” which intended to prohibit drag performances on public property and prohibit people from engaging in “indecent behavior” or displaying “indecent material” in public — all in the name of protecting minors from age-inappropriate content.
Violators would be banned from sponsoring events in public spaces for a period of two to five years.
They could also be charged with “disorderly conduct,” which, under Tennessee law, typically carries a fine of up to $50 and 30 days in prison.
The language of the ordinance appeared to specifically target drag shows, with the intent of having them deemed as “offensive” or overtly sexual.
Critics questioned who would be doing the deeming and warned that there could be disagreement over what adults consider acceptable for minors, as well as differences in standards based on a minor’s age and emotional maturity.
Additionally, the interpretation of what constitutes “indecent” behavior or material relied on a provision of existing city code defining “sexual conduct” as including “homosexuality,” which was likened to more explicit behaviors like indecent exposure, public indecency, lewd behavior or public nudity.
Critics argued that, under a strict reading of the city code, the very acknowledgment of homosexuality or open displays of LGBTQ identity, such as wearing a gay-themed T-shirt, could potentially be interpreted as violating the law.
Backlash over the ordinance appeared to motivate the council to quietly remove “homosexuality” from the city code’s definition of “sexual conduct,” which in turn provides guidelines for defining “indecent behavior.”
After the council passed the ordinance, Murfreesboro City Manager Craig Tindall sent a letter to organizers of BoroPride, an annual LGBTQ festival, stating his intent to deny future permits for the festival because the 2022 event had exposed children to “obscene” material or “sexual conduct” as defined by the ordinance.
The Tennessee Equality Project, an LGBTQ advocacy group that organizes BoroPride, objected to the classification of the event as inappropriate, noting that all performers at the 2022 event had been fully clothed.
The group also accused city officials of discriminating against the organization based on their personal biases against LGBTQ people.
With the help of the ACLU, the group sued the city, asking a judge to issue a temporary injunction blocking police and city officials from enforcing the ordinance and allow the celebration of BoroPride to take place. The injunction was issued and the event was held on October 28 at the Tennessee Miller Coliseum.
The lawsuit raised larger constitutional issues, with the ACLU and TEP arguing that the ordinance violated the free speech rights of BoroPride organizers, participants, and LGBTQ individuals, targeting them based on how they identify, dress, or express themselves in public.
On February 7, the ACLU announced the city had agreed to settle the case.
Under the settlement agreement terms, the city agreed to pay $500,000, repeal the ordinance, and process any upcoming event permit applications submitted by the Tennessee Equality Project for BoroPride and other events.