Ohio Supreme Court blocks Bellefontaine vote restricting drag shows

Court rules Secretary of State Frank LaRose ‘abused’ his discretion

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Ohio Supreme Court has blocked a planned November vote in a Central Ohio community that would have asked residents to ban public drag shows within city limits.

In a unanimous ruling on Sunday, the court said Secretary of State Frank LaRose and other elections officials failed to follow the law when they allowed the measure to move forward.

LaRose, a Republican running for U.S. Senate next year, put the measure up for a vote after he cast a tie-breaking vote on Sept. 17, siding with the Logan County Board of Elections’ two Republicans over its two Democrats, who agreed with a group of city residents that the measure’s backers didn’t properly submit the petitions needed to qualify the ordinance for the ballot.

Specifically, the ordinance’s backers, after collecting hundreds of voter signatures on state-mandated petitions, switched the petitions’ cover page before submitting them to elections officials. The ruling said this violated state law, which says the “text” and “title” of a petition signed by voters seeking a ballot issue must be the same as the petition submitted to elections officials.

“Secretary LaRose and the board of elections abused their discretion and disregarded the law in overruling relators’ protest,” the ruling read.

The ruling comes just days ahead of early voting, which begins Wednesday for the Nov. 7 election.

The ballot initiative traces back in part to The Olive Tree, a gay bar in Bellefontaine that hosts drag shows, and its float in a town Christmas parade last year. According to The Ohio Newsroom, a consortium of public radio reporters, The Olive Tree’s float featured a drag queen, whose dancing and outfit concerned resident Devin Palmer, who in turn launched the ballot proposal.

The measure would have classified any drag performance in city limits as an “adult cabaret performance,” and regulated them in a manner similar to strip clubs by banning them from public spaces or any other location “viewable by a minor.” The proposed drag show ban was similar to a bill being proposed by Republican state lawmakers and would have been the first by an Ohio community.

But the Ohio Supreme Court, where Republicans hold a 4-3 majority, agreed with a group of Bellefontaine residents, including Tim Steinhelfer, a lawyer who’s the city’s Democratic candidate for mayor, who sued to block the vote while citing the issue involving the petitions’ cover sheets.

“Today, the arc of the moral universe bends a little closer to justice due to the bravery of the people who spoke truth to power,” Steinhelfer said in a statement.

The Bellefontaine ordinance’s backers, after collecting 779 voter signatures, had removed their petitions’ cover sheet that described the proposal as a general ordinance and replaced it with a new cover sheet describing the measure as amending an existing zoning ordinance. The actual text of the proposed ordinance remained the same.

LaRose had argued the switch was legally insignificant, ruling that the new ordinance language was a “header” rather than the measure’s “title.” LaRose argued a different part of the petition that described the measure as reclassifying drag artists and drag shows as an “Adult Cabaret Performance” was actually the measure’s title.

The Ohio Supreme Court ruling flatly rejected that argument, saying the term “header” doesn’t appear in state law.

“Even if we were to accept Secretary LaRose’s conclusion that the proposed ordinance already had a title, that fact would not obviate the problem created by petitioners’ alteration of the part-petitions and their addition of another title,” it reads.

Messages have been left with LaRose’s office, the Logan County Board of Elections and a lawyer representing residents who had proposed the measure.

Andrew Tobias covers state politics and government for cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer

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