NASHVILLE — A federal judge on Friday temporarily blocked the implementation of a Tennessee law aimed at restricting public drag performances, hours before it was set to go into effect.
A Memphis theater company that frequently stages drag performances, Friends of George’s, challenged the law this week, arguing that the ambiguity of the law violated the theater’s constitutional rights. Violators of the law would be charged with a misdemeanor, or a felony for continued offenses.
The measure, passed by the Republican-dominated legislature and signed into law on March 1, was set to go into effect on Saturday. It makes no explicit mention of drag but forbids “adult cabaret” and performances on public property by topless, go-go or exotic dancers, strippers, or male or female impersonators that are “harmful to minors.”
But the murkiness of the language, paired with a concerted effort among conservative lawmakers across the country to limit the rights of the L.G.B.T.Q. community, had raised concerns about the implications for drag performers and transgender and gender-nonconforming people.
Judge Thomas L. Parker agreed to delay the law’s implementation for at least 14 days, acknowledging that the company’s concerns about upcoming performances — whether to impose an age restriction or risk legal scrutiny — were not “trifling issues for a theater company — certainly not in the free, civil society we hold our country to be.”
“If Tennessee wishes to exercise its police power in restricting speech it considers obscene, it must do so within the constraints and framework of the United States Constitution,” Judge Parker wrote in the order. “The court finds that as it stands, the record here suggests that when the legislature passed this statute, it missed the mark.”
Judge Parker was appointed by former President Donald J. Trump and unanimously confirmed to the District Court for the Western District of Tennessee in 2018.
Spokeswomen for Steven J. Mulroy, the district attorney for Shelby County, which includes Memphis, and Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, did not immediately return requests for comment on Friday. Mr. Mulroy did not oppose the request for a temporary order.
In its suit, the theater company had highlighted the global history of drag performances, from the male actors who performed female roles in plays by William Shakespeare to American vaudeville productions. It also pointed to a successful effort by Representative Chris Todd, a Republican state legislator, to restrict a drag performance at a Pride parade in Jackson, Tenn., last year, and noted that several organizations had already dropped plans to host drag events as part of Pride celebrations this year because of the law.
“We won because this is a bad law,” said Mark Campbell, the president of the board of directors for the theater company, in a statement. “We look forward to our day in court where the rights for all Tennesseans will be affirmed.”
The theater is set to open “Drag Rocks,” billed as a mixture of comedy and drag performances, on April 14.
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