Watch a previous NBC4 report on Bellefontaine’s proposed drag ban in the video player above.
BELLEFONTAINE, Ohio (WCMH) — Residents against a rural Ohio city’s ballot initiative to ban drag queen performances are challenging the proposal in the state’s Supreme Court.
Five Bellefontaine residents are requesting Ohio’s Supreme Court to block a proposed city ordinance prohibiting “adult cabaret performance” from appearing on the city’s Nov. 7 ballot, according to a complaint filed by attorney Tim Steinhelfer on Sept. 21. The filing argues the ballot initiative was submitted fraudulently, and the Logan County Board of Elections and Secretary of State Frank LaRose used “novel” theories when voting to place the measure on the ballot.
“Secretary Frank LaRose and the Logan County Board of Elections have abused their discretion and acted in clear disregard of applicable law,” the filing states. LaRose’s office did not respond to NBC4’s request for comment.
LaRose decided on Sept. 19 the measure is allowed to appear on Bellefontaine’s ballot after the five residents had argued in an electoral protest that the six members of the “anti-drag” group, who collected nearly 800 support signatures before filing the petition with the Logan County Board of Elections, filed the initiative incorrectly. Steinhelfer said the proposal filed with the city auditor in April did not contain the title language submitted in August to the board of elections that enshrines the drag queen ban as part of Bellefontaine’s zoning code regulating adult entertainment.
“You can’t just swap out the petition after the voters signed them with one you think stands a better chance in court,” Steinhelfer said. “[The residents] were caught red-handed and my clients are trying to protect the integrity of the election.”
Josh Brown, an attorney representing the anti-drag group, said the six residents added the header language that enshrines the measure as a zoning ordinance after they were told to do so by election officials.
LaRose cast the tie-breaking vote to allow the proposed measure on the Nov. 7 ballot after the Logan County election board voted 2-2 in a hearing held Sept. 7. In a letter sent to the county’s board of elections, LaRose ruled the headers added “are not the title of the proposed ordinance, rather, they are headings that explain what the proposed ordinance would do should it pass.”
“Upon review of the submitted materials, I find that the part-petitions that were circulated for signature in this matter did contain the full and correct copy of the title of the proposed ordinance,” wrote LaRose. “It is my view that the initiative petition and the part-petitions presented to voters were compliant with the law.”
However, the filing in Ohio’s Supreme Court argues “the petition signed by voters fails to notify them” as to the municipality for which the proposal is applicable and for which election the ballot measure seeks to be placed. In addition, because the copy signed by supporters lacked header language, then no voter actually signed any petition to regulate drag performances as part of Bellefontaine’s zoning code.
“The ballot measure can only become a zoning ordinance by dint of Secretary Frank LaRose’s tie vote based on his novel theory that municipal initiative petitions in Ohio can be substantively altered post-circulation if the alteration is a ‘header,'” states Steinhelfer’s complaint.
An order Friday from the state’s top court said the plaintiffs and LaRose’s office must submit their written arguments within 10 days.
The idea to start a petition began circulating in Bellefontaine after a drag queen named Blond Vanity was featured riding a jet ski in the city’s 2022 Christmas parade. Danielle Stefaniszyn and Devin Palmer, two of the six anti-drag residents, attended a Bellefontaine City Council meeting on Jan. 10 “to express concerns over a metropolitan city type float” in the parade and claimed Vanity was “dressed in provocative women’s clothing.”
The proposed Bellefontaine ordinance contains similar language to a bill proposed in the Ohio House of Representatives that also seeks to prohibit drag queen performances in public or where children are present.
House Bill 245 was introduced at the Statehouse on July 18 to ban “adult cabaret performances,” defined as a show “harmful to juveniles” that features “entertainers who exhibit a gender identity that is different from the performers’ or entertainers’ gender assigned at birth.” The bill would prohibit these shows in all locations other than “adult cabarets,” meaning “a nightclub, bar, juice bar, restaurant, bottle club or similar establishment.”
Reps. Josh Williams (R-Sylvania) and Angela King (R-Celina) are proposing the bill with the support of 41 out of 67 Ohio House Republican representatives.
Williams said the bill’s intention is to modernize Ohio’s revised code regarding obscenity viewed by minors, not to effectively ban drag in Ohio. The lawmaker stressed that the proposed measure only means to prohibit shows “harmful to juveniles,” with events like drag story time readings and plays like “Mrs. Doubtfire” covered under the First Amendment.
Read Steinhelfer’s filing in the Ohio Supreme Court on behalf of the five Bellefontaine residents and against LaRose and the Logan County Board of Elections below.