But Smith had never been to the club without a male companion, and she was in for a surprise. When the two women arrived, they were informed they wouldn’t be allowed to enter without a man, the lawsuit says. A manager explained that the policy was intended to discourage prostitution and that unaccompanied women might take men’s attention off the strippers. Plus, there was the risk that women would come in looking for their husbands and “cause drama.”
Smith and Yanes sued, kicking off a legal battle that pits liberal Florida communities against the conservative state government. On Monday, the Orlando City Council voted to join at least a dozen other cities in siding with the women and filing friend-of-the-court briefs in the case, the Orlando Sentinel reported. Now, nearly two years after the initial incident took place, the friends are in the unusual position of having officials from all over Florida fighting for their right to visit a strip club.
When they filed their lawsuit in April 2018, the women argued that the strip club’s policy violated Orange County’s human rights ordinance, which prohibits gender-based discrimination. But last May, Orange County Circuit Court Judge Keith A. Carsten dismissed the suit, ruling that the complaint should have been filed under the Florida Civil Rights Act. He cited a principle known as “preemption” in saying that meant the state law would supersede those passed on a county or city level in this case.
That ruling raised alarm bells in 46 cities and counties across Florida that have authored their own civil rights laws, according to the Sentinel. While the Florida Civil Rights Act bars discrimination on the basis of race, sex and national origin, it doesn’t protect people from being treated differently because of their sexual orientation. Consequently, liberal communities like Miami Beach and Delray Beach have passed their own LGBTQ-inclusive civil rights ordinances, many of which outlaw discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression.
“At its most broad, the ruling stands for the proposition that local governments can’t prohibit discrimination at all,” Robert Rosenwald, the city attorney for Miami Beach, told the Sentinel. “It could be incredibly damaging to municipalities around the state.”
Smith and Yanes filed an appeal in June, and Miami Beach is one of roughly a dozen Florida communities to have contributed friend-of-the-court briefs in recent months. The two friends have also garnered support from LGBTQ-rights groups and are represented by a disability advocacy group that hopes to ensure local municipalities retain the right to introduce legal protections that go beyond those found on the state or federal level, the Sentinel reported.
In the city of Delray Beach, a November resolution authorizing the city’s attorney to file a friend-of-the-court brief noted that the dismissal of the case “jeopardizes the validity of local human [rights] ordinances across the State of Florida.”
That’s exactly what Steven Mason, an attorney representing the strip club, wants. In an email to the Sentinel, he suggested that “left-leaning” communities were “attempting to gut state law” because they didn’t like the legislation coming out of the Republican-dominated Florida legislature.