UPDATE: Columbia business part of strip club lawsuit

Wednesday, August 11, 2010 | 7:49 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — A local business owner is among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed Tuesday that hopes to prevent a Missouri law from going into effect that would regulate strip clubs and adult stores.

Gene Gruender owns Passions in Boonville and Passions in Columbia, which are listed among more than a dozen plaintiffs in the suit.

Gruender said a change in state law means he would have to lay off two employees.

He said legislators are “trying to fix problems that don’t exist. Everything they’re trying to fix is already illegal.”

The law bans nudity and alcohol in the adult businesses. It will also bar touching between seminude employees and customers and prohibit anyone younger than 18 from entering the clubs and stores. It requires adult businesses to close before midnight and prevents them from opening near homes, schools, churches, day care centers, libraries, parks or other sexually oriented businesses.

Gruender's Boonville and Columbia stores have a late-night employee that Gruender said he would have to lay off if the law goes into effect. He said the jobs pay more than minimum wage and have health insurance.

Gruender said he spent a lot of time in Jefferson City trying to persuade legislators not to pass the law but said, "politics overtook the common sense." He said he questioned the law's intent to crack down on drugs and prostitution when those activities are already illegal.

In addition to the Columbia and Boonville stores, Gruender owns a store in Marshall. He said Columbia has seven adult businesses and that they rarely have any sort of problems with lawlessness.

The lawsuit claims state lawmakers didn't follow the proper procedures for determining the financial cost of the legislation and that the restrictions violate free speech and expression rights.

Calling the law a "series of draconian restrictions," the lawsuit asks the court to keep it from taking effect Aug. 28.

At particular issue in the lawsuit is the legislature's procedure for estimating how much proposed bills would cost the state and local governments. The lawsuit claims lawmakers ignored a request for a formal hearing on the expected cost.

By not holding the hearing, lawmakers failed to account for a significant financial hit to adult businesses that generate millions in tax revenue and provide a significant number of jobs, the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit also claims the new rules violate free expression rights under the First Amendment. For example, it states bookstores would be limited in their right to distribute constitutionally protected material, and employees of adult businesses might not be able to perform as they have in the past or convey their desired message to patrons.

Attorney Richard Bryant, who filed the suit, said it would be a relatively simple case if the courts accept the argument that legislators did not follow proper procedures in creating the law. If the court takes up the First Amendment issue, it would become more complicated, he said.

Sponsoring Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit, said he was heartened that the legal challenge focused on the process used to approve the law. He said he doesn't see the courts second-guessing the cost estimate.

"I am greatly encouraged that their method of attack is the fiscal note because I think that is extremely flimsy," Bartle said.

The law's supporters argue that adult businesses contribute to seedy behavior, demean women, cause divorces and drive down property values. A Tennessee attorney who developed a model Missouri used in creating its law has said restrictions on operating hours, nudity and buffers between exotic dancers and patrons have been upheld elsewhere.

The Missouri attorney general's office said it was reviewing the lawsuit.

State lawmakers have tried for several years to regulate sexually oriented businesses. A 2004 law restricting highway billboards was struck down by a federal appeals court, and legislation passed in 2005 was declared unconstitutional by the Missouri Supreme Court because the regulations were added to an unrelated bill.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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