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Tennessee’s drag restrictions have been temporarily blocked — again

Drag Queen Vanity performs at a Human Rights Campaign rally at Tribe in downtown Nashville on March 9, 2023.
Marianna Bacallao
Drag Queen Vanity performs at a Human Rights Campaign rally at Tribe in downtown Nashville on March 9, 2023.

A second federal judge in Tennessee has temporarily blocked a state law restricting drag performances in public spaces. The order from an East Tennessee judge comes three months after a West Tennessee judge ruled the law unconstitutional.

Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti has argued that the June ruling against the law only applies to Memphis and Shelby County, since he and Gov. Bill Lee were removed as defendants from the original lawsuit, filed by a Memphis LGBTQ theater company. That left Shelby County District Attorney Steven Mulroy as the sole defendant.

A district attorney in Blount County cited Skrmetti when he warned local Pride organizers that he would be prosecuting anyone found in violation of the law at Saturday’s Pride festival. Blount County Pride then sued to block the law in East Tennessee.

Attorney Melissa Stewart, who has represented plaintiffs in both lawsuits, argues that the original ruling gives declaratory relief to the whole state, since the law was declared unconstitutional.

On Friday, Judge Ronnie Greer of East Tennessee granted a temporary injunction against Blount County DA Ryan Desmond. However, the judge’s order does leave room for Desmond to prosecute the plaintiffs retroactively if the judge’s final ruling does not go in their favor.

“Despite continued attempts to remove LGBTQ people from public life, our First Amendment rights matter just as much as anyone else’s,” says plaintiff Flamy Grant. “Our fundamental right to exist as we are and to gather in celebration with our community is protected by the First Amendment on and off the stage.”

In a statement to WPLN News, the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office says that it is defending the lawsuit on behalf of the state and “will have no further comment.”

Update: This story has been updated to include a quote from the plaintiffs. 

Marianna Bacallao is a Cuban American journalist at WPLN and the new afternoon host for Nashville Public Radio. Before coming to Nashville, she was the morning host and general assignment reporter for WVIK Quad Cities NPR, where she hosted through a record-breaking wind storm that caused statewide power outages. A Georgia native, she was a contributor to Georgia Public Broadcasting during her undergrad years and served as editor-in-chief for Mercer University’s student newspaper.
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