US Supreme Court keeps pause on Florida's ban on drag shows in front of kids

The United States Supreme Court building is seen in Washington

By John Kruzel

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday declined to revive a Florida law signed by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis banning the performance of "lewd" drag shows in the presence of children.

The justices denied a request by Florida officials to narrow a judge's pause on the law to just a single plaintiff - an Orlando restaurant called Hamburger Mary's - rather than maintain his temporary statewide halt of the measure.

Three of the court's six conservative justices - Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch - indicated they sided with Florida officials and would have granted their request.

Orlando-based U.S. District Judge Gregory Presnell blocked the measure in June, deciding that it likely violates the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment promise of free speech because its sweeping prohibitions were poorly defined and risked outlawing constitutionally protected expression.

Hamburger Mary's stages what it has called family-friendly drag performances. The restaurant filed suit against DeSantis and other state officials in May to halt enforcement of the law, which would punish restaurants and other venues that stage performances of drag shows deemed to be indecent with children present.

DeSantis, a candidate for the Republican nomination to challenge Democratic President Joe Biden in the 2024 U.S. election, signed the measure in May as part of a package of bills he said were aimed at protecting children that also included a law banning gender-changing surgeries for minors.

A page on the official Florida governor website said the bills aimed "to protect the innocence of Florida's kids," adding that "Florida's children deserve to have a childhood free from indoctrinating and confusing concepts like gender identity, forced pronouns and males competing in women's sports."

The anti-drag show measure, called the Protection of Children Act, allowed the state to fine or revoke the liquor license of any establishment that admits minors to a performance that "simulates nudity, sexual conduct or specific sexual activities" or depicts "lewd conduct."

Drag often involves "exaggeratedly feminine clothing, makeup, and hair" worn by a man, Hamburger Mary's said in its lawsuit. The suit described drag as a tradition dating back to ancient Greek theater and early stage productions of William Shakespeare's plays, one that has been "specifically linked with the LGBTQIA community" for nearly a century before it entered "mainstream culture."

Presnell, an appointee of Democratic former President Bill Clinton, halted the law statewide on First Amendment grounds.

Florida officials asked the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to partially lift the lower court's statewide block on the law - applying the relief only to Hamburger Mary's - while the state pursues a formal appeal of Presnell's order. The 11th Circuit rejected the request, prompting officials to seek emergency relief at the U.S. Supreme Court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority.

Lawyers representing the restaurant urged the justices to reject the application, noting among other things that "Florida already has constitutional laws in place that prevent children from viewing sexually explicit materials."

Florida's law is one of dozens of measures enacted around the country this year - virtually all introduced by Republicans - that were deemed to be anti-LGBT by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest LGBT advocacy organization in the United States.

(Reporting by John Kruzel; Editing by Will Dunham)