Ohio Supreme Court blocks Bellefontaine’s drag queen ban from ballot

Watch a previous NBC4 report on Bellefontaine’s proposed drag ban in the video player above.

BELLEFONTAINE, Ohio (WCMH) — A rural Ohio city is no longer voting on whether to ban drag queen performances after the state’s Supreme Court blocked the proposal from appearing on this November’s ballot.

The Ohio Supreme Court unanimously ruled on Sunday that Bellefontaine’s proposed city ordinance prohibiting “adult cabaret performance” cannot appear on the city’s Nov. 7 ballot, court documents show. The court decided the ballot initiative was submitted fraudulently, and the Logan County Board of Elections and Secretary of State Frank LaRose did not comply with Ohio’s Revised Code when voting to place the measure on the ballot.

“Secretary LaRose and the board of elections abused their discretion and disregarded the law in overruling relators’ protest,” the ruling states. “Accordingly, we grant the requested writ of mandamus.”

Director Kandie Horton said the Logan County Board of Elections has not begun printing before early voting begins in Ohio on Oct. 11, so the proposal will not appear on ballots.

LaRose decided on Sept. 19 that the measure was allowed to appear on Bellefontaine’s ballot after five residents had argued in an electoral protest that six separate “anti-drag” residents, who collected nearly 800 support signatures before filing the petition with the Logan County Board of Elections, filed the initiative incorrectly.

Attorney Tim Steinhelfer challenged the initiative to Ohio’s Supreme Court on Sept. 21, claiming 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. 

“The removal of this unconstitutional measure from the November ballot is not just a victory for the LGBTQ community; it’s a victory for all Ohioans who believe in fairness and equality,” said Steinhelfer. “Frank LaRose has been suffering from the misconception that his word is the law. I’m glad we were able to disabuse him of that notion.”

Josh Brown, an attorney representing the anti-drag group, has not responded to NBC4’s request for comment, but previously 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 had 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.”

However, the Ohio Supreme Court wrote Sunday “the petition as filed does not comply with [Ohio’s Revised Code], because each filed part-petition includes a title that was not presented
to the electors who signed it.” The court said LaRose’s arguments “mistake what is at issue,” stating there is no statutory basis for calling the new language a header and, “the relevant statutes do not use that term.”

“Secretary LaRose tries to downplay the significance of the new language, arguing that it is merely a ‘header’ and that its inclusion is a ‘technical defect’ in the petition,” the ruling states. “We reject these arguments.”

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 the Ohio Supreme Court’s full grant of writ of mandamus below.